Recent Reading: February 2023
February’s books were pretty varied, I think: some poetry, some older novels, some creative nonfiction, a couple novels in translation. I liked all of it and some of it I loved — nothing to complain about there.
Before I get into the books, let me plug the latest episode of One Bright Book, which was about Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel Maud Martha. I loved the book and thought our discussion went in some interesting directions. For April we are discussing The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence — read along with us if you like!
And now, here’s February’s reading:
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015): This is my first poetry book of the year. It’s also my fourth Ross Gay book in two years, and while this is my least favorite of all of them, it’s still pretty great. If you’re interested in reading Gay, I’d start with Be Holding if you want poetry (I wrote about it here) and if you want essays, start with Inciting Joy and then go straight to Book of Delights (and then read Be Holding). Read Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude if you are like me and have become a Ross Gay superfan.
I love Gay for how he writes about joy and delight in very serious ways and how his books — even with their cheesy titles (sorry Ross) — are also about darkness and sorrow. The books are about living in a world that’s falling apart, and as my own sense of the world’s falling apart increases, I find this comforting and bracing. I wasn’t kidding when I said Gay makes me want to change my life; inspired by a mention in Inciting Joy, I read The Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, and these books together have had me pondering relationships and community and teaching and structures of society, and … everything.
As for the poems in Catalog, they are chatty and informal, full of the natural world, with images that have lingered in my mind. The poems with figs in them are particularly great. There’s an unforgettable one involving bird shit. The poems are lovely and sensuous, with so much about bodies, trees, dirt, bees, grass. They are generous and beautiful, and, as always with Gay, about suffering as well as gratitude. They are so warm. Read this is you already love Gay, but also it’s a great recommendation for someone who isn’t a regular poetry reader and wants to give poetry a try, and I mean that as a compliment: the poems are accessible and very good.
The Freezer Door by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (Semiotext(e), 2020): I almost quit this book a couple times, but something about its depiction of loneliness kept me reading. I struggled with its sudden transitions and lyrical tone; I wasn’t sure if it was my fault that I couldn’t quite grasp some passages or if I was meant to read it more poetically and not get caught up in logic. But when the writing got more grounded and clear, the scenes Sycamore described came to life. It’s a book about living on the edges of various queer communities, about searching for and mostly failing to find friendships, about gentrification, and about sex, joy, and crowds. It doesn’t have a strong narrative throughline and was more meandering than I wanted, but it has so much to say about trying to find one’s place — in relationships, in subcultures, in cities — and is brilliant on sex and the body. I particularly liked Sycamore’s struggles with the ebb and flow of friendships and relationships and the feeling of always being on the outside. It’s also a book where an ice cube has extended conversations with an ice cube tray, and while I don’t really know why an ice cube and an ice cube tray are talking, I did like what they had to say.
Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, translated by Basil Creighton (1929; NYRB Classics, 2016): I read this as part of Kim McNeill’s #NYRBWomen23 group read on Twitter, and I think I’m correct in saying that everyone who read along loved it. I didn’t expect to like it so much — I’m not sure why except maybe I thought it was going to be lighter and frothier than it was — but Baum’s lively, sharp characterizations won me over immediately, and it soon became clear that the novel was heading into complex emotional territory.
Grand Hotel is the perfect example of a “hotel novel,” where the narrative follows the stories of multiple characters inhabiting a hotel at the same time, people who otherwise might not have known each other but who find their lives unexpectedly intertwined. The perspective shifts from one character to another, cycling through the main ones over and over. We meet a clerk who is dying and wants to spend his last days in luxury; a ballerina who is getting older and is terrified of losing her adoring audience; a handsome, charming Baron who is also a thief; the director of a firm who is in over his head, business-wise, and is deeply unhappy and also a terrible bully. Each of these people appears first as a figure of fun — the narrative voice is a bit arch, slightly ironic — but over time they deepen and become sympathetic, and by the end I cared about each and every one. I loved all the characters, but I think I loved the narrative voice most of all: it starts off highly assured, utterly confident in its judgments, amusing, and a bit distanced. Over time it becomes more serious, more willing to get close to the characters, more willing to head into darkness and to reach for profundity. It begins by entertaining you and ends by making you feel. It’s quite a feat.
The Poetics of Wrongness by Rachel Zucker (Wave Books, 2023): This is one of my most anticipated books of the year (hear about others as well as those of my co-hosts over on One Bright Book!), and I’ll admit I got a little nervous when I read the first essay and had very mixed feelings about it. It’s the title essay, and it reads like a manifesto, with strong statements about poetic beauty, directness, and length that I sometimes disagreed with, sometimes got annoyed by. Zucker argues for a kind of poetry that is personal and messy, that isn’t afraid to go on and on, that isn’t afraid to be ugly. It doesn’t try to be the perfectly-shaped, beautiful object that some poems are. I think that’s fine as a personal aesthetic, but I didn’t love that the essay makes the case for this kind of poetry by arguing against other kinds. But, of course, with a title like “The Poetics of Wrongness” the essay is asking me to call it wrong, so … there you go.
I liked the essays (which are really revised lectures) more as the book went along; the one on confessional poetry is good, the one on writing about real people is very good, the one on the poetics of motherhood is excellent. There are a bunch of short pieces gathered at the back in an appendix, and I thought those were really good too. I like reading essays on poetry about as much as I like reading poetry itself, and this volume offers a lot to ponder.
A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib (Random House, 2022): It wasn’t at all a mistake to listen to this on audio (read by JD Jackson) because the audio version is really great, but I do want to reread this in print so I can take my time with it and absorb it a little better. I kept stopping and replaying sections to make sure I understood Abdurraqib’s point, or just to savor it. The essays in this book are so good. They are all about Black musicians and performers and they all are personal in some way and also about culture broadly, and they are all beautiful: emotional, lyrical, profound. I do tend to read less critically and give myself over more easily to audiobooks than print ones (as long as I like the narrator), so it’s possible that reading this in print won’t be as magical as listening, but I have a feeling it will be, if in a different way.
I will say, though, it will be hard to beat the experience of listening to an essay on Merry Clayton’s backup vocals in the song “Gimme Shelter” and going back and forth between the essay and the song to hear exactly what Abdurraqib is describing, all while walking in the woods hoping no one found me on the trail switching back and forth between apps and shaking my head in wonder at the song and essay both. This is a passionate book, and there was something exactly right in having that passion coming to me through my ears. JD Jackson’s reading is excellent.
Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker (1938; NYRB Classics, 2012): I also read this for #NYRBWomen23, and I think my strongest memory of reading this book will be a Twitter conversation fellow readers and I had about the book’s racist language and its depiction of race more broadly. I’m so grateful to my Twitter friends for thinking through this issue with me! There is a lot I enjoyed about this book, but its use of racial slurs is jarring. Now, this language sometimes comes from dialogue and sometimes from a narrator who seems not to be Baker herself, or a stand-in for Baker, so figuring out how to situate it is complicated. Who IS the narrator and why create that particular voice? I don’t know. The racial dynamics of the story are complicated too. The novel is about a white musician named Rick Martin who learns how to play piano and then trumpet from local Black jazz musicians. We learn from a prologue that Rick dies young, so the novel turns into a story about the journey to Rick’s early death. It’s also a story about how his relationships with various musicians ebb and flow. Ultimately I think this is, in part, a book about the complications of white and Black musicians working together and how those complications harm the cause of producing great music. If anyone knows of any scholarly work on Baker and race, I’d love to hear about it.
Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein (1952; Astra House, 2023): This is a novel about the power of writing — including the power writing has to cause problems. Or maybe it’s better to say “complications” rather than problems: the protagonist, Valeria, starts a diary and begins to learn about herself — or is it that she begins to create herself? — and part of what she discovers is that she’s unhappy. Writing about her days makes her see how little of herself she actually has. She devotes all her time to her house and family, so much, in fact, that if she sits down for a moment, her family assumes she doesn’t have anything to do and then asks her to do something. Her job is a welcome escape from home life, but that’s not exactly time for herself either. She also begins to see that she and her husband are no longer close and that her children are about to begin their own lives and leave her behind.
She’s waking up and reevaluating everything around her as is common to do at her age, 43, and at her stage of life, when her children are becoming adults. It’s also something in the air around her: it’s the postwar period in Italy and society is changing. That she has a great deal of trouble with her daughter’s free-thinking ways shows what a panic all this has put her in. Her daughter seems to know who she is and what she wants, but what does Valeria know? When has she had a chance to learn anything?
I loved how this book made me sympathize so deeply with Valeria and made me angry at her at the same time. What a character.
I hope you all found some great books in February and are in the middle of more wonderful books now that we are deep into March!