Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve done a list of any sort, but with the new year upon us, I think now’s the perfect time for another. This post is part of Top 10 Tuesday, a project currently hosted by Jana, known to the Internet as That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme: the best books we read in 2018.

This year, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in my reading habits. In years past, the great majority of books I’ve read have been thin poetry collections, with a smattering of prose works to balance things out. This year, the ratio has more or less reversed, for reasons that I’ve previously detailed on this blog. So, in case you’re wondering why someone who writes about poetry so often doesn’t have more poetry on his best-of list, there’s your explanation.

Before we get to the list, two honorable mentions that I’ve chosen to exclude from the list for potential conflicts of interest: Alice McDermott’s 2017 novel The Ninth Hour (she was a professor at Johns Hopkins while I was a grad student there) and Nausheen Eusuf’s 2017 poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (I was paid to review her book for The Hopkins Review, and afterwards very briefly corresponded with the author). Both books come highly recommended, but there’s your disclaimer.

And with that out of the way, the list proper:

10) Plunge, by Alice Jones (2012)
When it comes to poetry collections, I often find formal experiments to be more memorable than the content of the poems themselves. Such is the case for Alice Jones’s Plunge. Jones is of course capable of crafting a striking image or allowing the language to carry the reader on its music. But what has stayed with me over the past year is the structural conceit. Each poem is an incremental series of smaller pieces, starting with a haiku and building toward a sestina (or vice versa), with certain key words repeated and recontextualized in every iteration. My favorite of the collection, “Valle d’Aosta,” perfectly summarizes Jones’s strategy: “Before we ever saw mountains / we imagined them, heaps of gravel and snow, islands / floating above all we knew.” It’s far from the best collection I’ve ever read, but it’s among the most I’m eager to imitate.

9) Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
Equal parts memoir and memorial, Jesmyn Ward’s account of the deaths of five young black men from her hometown takes a little while to find its footing. The narrative alternates between Ward’s own story and the five deaths that touched her life, with the memorial segments told in reverse chronological order, it’s a bit of a struggle to settle into the world of DeLisle, Mississippi. But once the reader gets accustomed to the narrative flow, Ward’s powers of description prove devastating, especially as the book begins to circle the first and final death, that of Ward’s younger brother Joshua. Yet through all the heartache and tragedy, Ward finds a way to press on. “We love each other fiercely,” she writes near the very end, “while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.” I’m looking forward to diving into Ward’s fiction in the coming months; I want to see her powers of lyricism and imagination really shine independent of the facts.

8) The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature, by Denise Levertov (1997)
Conventional wisdom holds that love and death are the two most difficult subjects to write good poems about, but I’d personally add nature to that list. Handled poorly and a nature poem is just a pedestrian landscape rendered in language, or else a polemic without any craft. What makes Denise Levertov’s poetry so delightful is the variety of ways she has of approaching the natural world, whether it’s placing uranium mines in the context of colonialism in “What It Could Be” or turning “The Cabbage Field” into a painterly, almost surreal portrait of the sea. This collection would be much higher on the list if not for one baffling editorial decision: the last third of book is dedicated to nothing but descriptions of mountains, and it’s stunning how quickly the book becomes a slog in the home stretch. Had that proverbial mountain range been broken up and spread out, this would probably crack my top three.

7) My Life as a Foreign Country, by Brian Turner (2015)
Brian Turner first came to the attention of the literary world with Here, Bullet, a collection of poems inspired by his time as an American soldier in the Iraq War. It comes as no surprise, then, that his memoir of overseas service, My Life as a Foreign Country, functions as poetry in multiple senses: lyrical language, fragmentary progressions of ideas, and associative leaps between the different threads of the narrative. As with Men We Reaped, this book takes some getting used to, both with its structure and its content. Turner’s recollections are often stomach-churning and infuriating, as any response to war is bound to be, and what makes his account especially gripping is how far the effects of war spread. It colors Turner’s family, his life after returning home, and even his past: there’s a memorable sequence from his childhood where he and his friends make a war film, and the presentation of their backyard fun becomes unnervingly graphic. This is really the only book on this list that I “hyped” myself for, and in the end it surpassed (and circumvented) my expectations.

6) Wolf Moon, Blood Moon, by Edward Falco (2017)
When I write about poems, I usually find myself thinking about the poetic argument, the idea or narrative that the writer wishes to get across as the poem unfolds. This approach, granted, risks treating poetry as essay writing rather than on its own terms, but Ed Falco’s Wolf Moon, Blood Moon is bold enough to embrace this approach. The pieces in this collection present themselves as essays aaddressing large topics, from grief to quantum theory, but along the way their whirlwinds sweep up the intimate details which mark successful poems. “On Language,” for instance, begins with the prosaic notion that “[t]he words we use to instill a sense of the ineffable / Carry us on a journey that’s mysterious,” only to use that thesis to frame a boy’s evolving relationship with his aging father. There were moments reading Falco’s work that made me feel how I did when I first read the later poems of Larry Levis, which coming from me is high praise indeed. Falco is primarily a novelist, but I sincerely hope that he returns to poetry in the future.

5) Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona (2015)
Kamala Khan’s position as a (diegetically) marginal figure within the Marvel universe comes to a head in Last Days, as the world appears to be on the cusp of ending and the fate of Jersey City looks like an afterthought next to that of New York. Yet it’s in that milieu of hopelessness that everyone’s humanity bursts through most clearly. Kamala’s inevitable team-up with her idol Carol Danvers naturally takes center stage, but it’s her conversations with her mother and brother that make this collection an aesthetically fulfilling experience. And while I’m in no way qualified to discuss visual art, Adrian Alphona’s artwork throughout sells the characters’ emotions and the mood of the world just as much as G. Willow Wilson’s dialogue. Had the world in fact ended for Kamala and company, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying conclusion to the story.

4) Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, by Brian Blanchfield (2016)
Here’s a book that I admired enough to write a 2400-word blog post about it while imitating its style. Brian Blanchfield effortlessly manages to blend the abstract and the erudite with the grounded and the intimate. A series of self-searching essays which rely solely on Blanchfield’s memory as a reference for all facts, Proxies is a book which imbue supreme power in words as words, for they are his only certain path to understanding. It is much easier, for instance, for the author to confront how he left (abandoned?) his teaching position at a Massachusetts boarding school if he first interrogates what it means “to withdraw”: “To withdraw—when it doesn’t take an object, like: an offer, or a question, or the troops—to withdraw, as an intransitive verb, is, as it happens, always reflexive. If I withdraw, I withdraw myself. From what?” Proxies is a book that teaches us through example that before we can even hope to sort out our lives’ decisions, we have to figure out what the questions even are.

3) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (2000)
This is the part of the list where I start praising books that don’t need anyone else’s endorsement, but to hell with it—I love these books. First up is Michael Chabon’s most beloved novel, the story of a Jewish-American duo in the golden age of superhero comics. Sam Clay and Joseph Kavalier’s friendship and art perseveres through business hardships, through anti-Semitic sentiments, through war, and it’s one of the most touching relationships that I’ve read about in a long time. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is also miraculous in its structure, a modern 600-page novel that feels epic but is never sprawling; by the time I closed the covers on it, I only wanted to cut about 50 pages from its length. (Normally, that number is closer to 300.) Even when he’s indulging himself with an extended digression on comic book history, Chabon never loses sight of the novel’s focus, its richly developed characters.

2) Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (1938)
Earlier this year, when I wrote about the use of dark comedy in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, I said that the author’s ability to “find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom.” The more I think about the book, the more that sentiment rings true for me. Homage to Catalonia is a despairing book, make no mistake. To see how the Communists sold out the leftist cause in the Spanish Civil War to help put the Fascists in power is enough to put a permanent hole in the reader’s heart. Yet months after reading it, I find myself thinking back to Orwell’s time in the P.O.U.M. camp, and the sense of wholly equal comradeship that existed—nay, thrived —in the early days of the conflict, and that tells me that Orwell’s account is no mere exercise in hopelessness. Eighty years after its initial publication, Homage to Catalonia remains vital, and I really mean that in every sense of the word.

1) Middlemarch, by George Eliot (1871-1872)
Between this book and Silas Marner, I’ve come to the conclusion that George Eliot is the most precise observer of human behavior to ever set pen to paper. A depiction of life in a provincial English town circa 1830, Middlemarch has more memorable and fleshed out characters than I could ever hope to discuss coherently. From the emotionally distant and impossibly verbose Casaubon, who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Dickens novel; to the charming but underhanded Rosamond, who is so adept at justifying her secret schemes that one starts halfway siding with her; to Chettam, the Platonic ideal of an elitist jerk. And at the center of it all, we have Lydgate, as brilliant at medicine as he is inept at managing social connections, and Dorothea, a woman so moral and self-sacrificing yet internally conflicted that I’m tempted to call her my new favorite protagonist—except to do so would mean reducing the novel to Dorothea’s story. No, Middlemarch has far more to offer, far more it wishes to offer, than any summary could ever convey. I only finished this book about two weeks ago, but I’ve put it on top because more than anything thing else that I read this year, this is the book I want to shove into the people’s hands and say, “Read this immediately.” You’ll become a better person for the experience.


There’s my list for you. But what are your thoughts on all this? Have you read any of my favorites from this year? Any books you’ve read this year that you’re dying to share with others? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re looking for more book recommendations, you might want to check out my list of modern poetry classics.

My Classics Club Reading List

I’ve never been one for reading challenges, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. I don’t like the public performance that taking on such a challenge represents—but then again, I’m maintaining a blog, which is its own sort of public performance. I don’t like how they turn the meditative act of reading into a competition against time—but then again, the mere act of rationing of, for example, a comics trade paperback over six days does something similar, tying the reading experience to something arbitrary and external. And I don’t like committing myself to tasks unnecessarily—but then again…well, I don’t have a ready counterpoint to that one; that one’s just true.

This has been a lot of throat-clearing to explain that I’m joining The Classics Club, whose main selling point is functionally a reading challenge.

The rules of this game are fairly simple: make a list of at least fifty classic books, read them within no more than a five-year span, and write a blog post about each one. That comes out to a leisurely pace of ten classics per year, which at least at a distance seems manageable.

What I find a bit more intimidating is requirement that one write about each book. I don’t generally write reviews in the traditional sense, offering up-down aesthetic appraisals. I prefer essays and the like, exploring a piece of writing because I find it interesting, because it opens up some larger conversation about craft or context. But I can’t guarantee that any given book will avail itself to such a post. I’ve read plenty of books which I enjoyed immensely but never wrote about because I couldn’t find an “in” to the text beyond saying, “It was good, and you ought to read it.” But I fear that’s because I’ve been too shallow in my own reading habits, neither analytic or emotional enough to my thinking. This little challenge is an attempt to rectify that.

In drafting this list of fifty classics, I’ve tried to go for a broad cross-section of the “genre,” as it were. Chronologically they range from before the common era (Virgil’s Aeneid) to 1993, which was the compositional cut-off date when I first started drafting the list (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). I’ve gone for kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama. It’s a hodge-podge, and that’s both an advantage and a hindrance. It may be difficult to draw connections between these books, but if I find one style is not my taste, the whole project won’t become stale.

Now for the technical specs. This project will begin on December 22, 2018, and conclude no later than December 21, 2023. Should I get through all the titles on this list, I will add more books to it based on my discretion.

And so, presented alphabetically by author, the fifty books for my Classics Club list:

          Auden, W. H.: The Dyer’s Hand
          Austen, Jane: Sense and Sensibility
          Austin, J. L.: How to Do Things with Words
          Bacon, Francis: New Atlantis
          Baldwin, James: Giovanni’s Room
          Behn, Aphra: The Rover
          Boccaccio, Giovanni: The Decameron
          Böll, Heinrich: Billiards at Half-Past Nine
          Brooks, Gwendolyn: Annie Allen
          Butler, Octavia: Parable of the Sower
          Cather, Willa: My Ántonia
          Cavendish, Margaret: The Blazing World
          Chekhov, Anton: Uncle Vanya
          Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield
          Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man
          Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Last Tycoon
          Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary
          Gordimer, Nadine: The Conservationist
          Gunn, Thom: The Man with Night Sweats
          Harper, Frances: Iola Leroy
          Hauptmann, Gerhart: The Weavers
          Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls
          Hume, David: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
          Ibsen, Henrik: A Doll’s House
          Jelinek, Elfriede: Wonderful, Wonderful Times
          Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Lathe of Heaven
          Middleton, Thomas: A Chaste Maid of Cheapside
          O’Neill, Eugene: The Iceman Cometh
          Ovid: Metamorphoses
          Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country
          Pope, Alexander: An Essay on Criticism
          Radway, Janice: Reading the Romance
          Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
          Russell, Bertrand: The Problems of Philosophy
          Schmitt, Gladys: The Collected Stories of Gladys Schmitt
          Schuyler, George: Black No More
          Sexton, Anne: Transformations
          Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night
          Shute, Nevil: A Town Like Alice
          Spenser, Edmund: The Faerie Queene
          Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row
          Stevens, Wallace: Harmonium
          Strachey, Dorothy: Olivia
          Toomer, Jean: Cane
          Treadwell, Sophie: Machinal
          Twain, Mark: Pudd’nhead Wilson
          Valenzuela, Luisa: He Who Searches
          Virgil: Aeneid
          Wright, Richard: Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon
          Zola, Émile: Thérèse Raquin

This ought to be fun. And in the words of Neil Young, “We’ll keep good time on a journey through the past.”

Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”: An Analysis

Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.

In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.

            [The Poets light but Lamps –]

            The Poets light but Lamps –
            Themselves – go out –
            The Wicks they stimulate
            If vital Light

            Inhere as do the Suns –
            Each Age a Lens
            Disseminating their
            Circumference –

If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.

Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.

Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.

On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.

What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.

So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.

Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.

First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.

I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.

I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?

The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.

Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.

Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.

In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.


But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!

Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.

And as always: thanks for reading!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Should Be Taught in High School

Today’s post is part of Top Ten Tuesday, a project currently organized by the book blogger Jana (aka That Artsy Reader Girl). This week’s prompt is an education-themed freebie, as it’s back-to-school season here in the United States.

I was trying to think of a good topic to fit that theme when I came across an article on the New York Times website that asked a number of authors, from John Green to Yaa Gyasi, which books they would like to see added to high school curricula. I found that a difficult question to answer for myself, not because I couldn’t think of any candidates, but because there are so many directions to take that prompt. What exactly do high school reading lists miss? What are the ultimate goals of education? Which books best address such concerns?

To try to capture the whole breadth of that discussion, I’ve come up with a list of ten books that I feel would add something of value to a high school education. The only criterion for possible consideration was that I couldn’t have read the book while I personally was in high school. So, if any of these books were already required reading for you, then…well, you clearly went to a cooler school district than I did.

And so, proceeding chronologically:

 

1. Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1592)

EdwardiiquartoEnglish classes have an odd relationship with early-modern English drama. Shakespeare is all but mandatory as part of the curriculum, but his contemporaries hardly get mentioned, let alone read: none of Ben Jonson’s intricate city comedies, none of Thomas Middleton’s tragic bloodbaths. But I feel Shakespeare’s dominance is especially a shame when it comes to Christopher Marlowe, whose work not only influenced the Bard’s but also matches it in pure, visceral pleasure. Marlowe’s characters are larger than life, always scheming, and elicit viewer sympathy despite their many, many vices.

Edward II is my favorite of his works, and I would love to see it taught for two reasons. First, as a history play, it would slot well into a discussion of Shakespeare’s Richard III or Henry IV, Part 1, as the monarchs in each play respond quite differently to the dissenting nobles threatening to take the crown. Second, teaching the play would be an excuse to show students Derek Jarman’s striking 1991 film adaptation, which turns the homoerotic subtext of Edward and Gaveston’s relationship into text. It’s the perfect demonstration of how queer themes, rather than being a recent development, have been part of the Anglophone canon for centuries.

 

2. Washington Square, by Henry James (1880)

Washington SquareThere are some writers whose works, while critically lauded and oft-studied at the university level, rarely make their way onto high school reading lists because of their perceived difficulty. I’m thinking of authors such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and the dean of this odd school, Henry James. Untangling James’s syntax is a true challenge that every student of literature must eventually face, but Washington Square is an exception in his bibliography. Indeed, it reads less like James and more like that mainstay of English classes, Jane Austen. (Apparently this was much to James’s chagrin, but what does he know?)

Of course, I don’t count Washington Square so highly because it’s merely approachable. Instead, I think the book, by the example of its characters, is uniquely instructive in how relationships work. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Sloper judges that his daughter Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend, is only interested in her inheritance. As it happens, he’s right on the money (so to speak), as Townsend leaves Catherine after Dr. Sloper disinherits her. Yet in proving himself right, in proving his concerns for his daughter’s well-being were justified, he permanently damages his relationship with Catherine. Students will learn a difficult lesson by the end, one that the educational system seems particularly ill-equipped to impart: sometimes, being correct just doesn’t matter.

 

3. Passing, by Nella Larsen (1929)

PassingOne of the best literature courses I took as an undergraduate was called Capital Fictions, which was an exploration of economic themes in late 19th- and early 20th-century American literature. I was tempted to try shoehorning half the syllabus onto this list—ooh, people should actually read The Jungle! ooh, McTeague is a masterpiece of literary naturalism! ooh, “The Tenth of January” is a fantastic short story!—but in the end, I exercised something resembling disciplined and settled on the one book that I found the most eye-opening.

I don’t think we ever used the term in Capital Fictions, but that course was basically my introduction to the concept of intersectionality, and no book on the syllabus better demonstrated the interweaving of societal oppressions quite like Nella Larsen’s Passing. The novel tells the story of two light-skinned black women, Irene and Clare, who must navigate the racial, gender, and class expectations of 1920s Chicago, forces which strain their friendship and ultimately lead to sudden tragedy. It’s also a work where the prose style, empathetic but startlingly blunt, is perfectly suited to the subject, making it worthy read for any aspiring writers.

 

4. White Noise, by Don DeLillo (1985)

White NoiseDon DeLillo writes the accessible sort of “weird” books that I’m certain would have totally blown my mind when I was in high school. White Noise isn’t “funny,” exactly, but there’s a lot in the book to quietly snort at, and unlike, for instance, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, one doesn’t need to be well versed in Jacobean revenge tragedies to get the joke. The fact that the protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a leading scholar of Hitler studies (snort) who doesn’t speak a lick of German (snort) is amusing no matter one’s stage of cultural awareness.

Hidden beneath the humor is a prescient depiction of media and advertising saturation (written before the Internet exacerbated those problems), chemical degradation of the environment, and medicinal fixes for anxiety, as well as a sympathetic meditation on the ever-present fear of death. White Noise is the sort of novel I expect (hope?) a fair number of students will want to throw back at the instructor, frustrated with the apparent pointlessness of its events. But even that reaction would be heartening—those people might just try to patch up this world before its own version of the Airborne Toxic Event.

 

5. Collected Sonnets, by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1941)

MillayPoetry tends to get short shrift in English classes, with maybe a few weeks dedicated to the entire tradition. A Brit lit class might touch on the Romantics, an American lit class on Whitman and Dickinson, but not much beyond that. Still, most students graduate with at least some understanding of what a sonnet is, or at least an understanding that they exist and that Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of them. The sonnet has proven to be an enduring form, and if anyone’s work demonstrates the power of a well-turned sonnet, then it’s Edna St. Vincent Millay.

An often under-taught aspect of the sonnet is the volta, the turn in the poem’s argument, and Millay’s poems are perfect exemplars of such twists. The movement in poems such as “[Only until this cigarette is ended]” or “[If I should learn, in some quite casual way]” is both clear and surprising. Her poems prove that contemporary concerns and classical imagery are not mutually exclusive, and that rhyme and meter are capable of speaking modern thoughts. But most of all, her speakers are so cool and confident that I think high school students will latch onto their personas. She’s the sort of poet who might convince you to become a poet.

 

6. Dien Cai Dau, by Yusef Komunyakaa (1988)

Dien Cai DauOf course, what high school English classes really need is more contemporary poetry, and by “contemporary,” I mean “anyone after Robert Frost.” Students come away from their secondary education with the notion that poetry is a dead art that only deals with archaic subject matter and must sound like the mad ravings of a pantalooned troubadour. And, to be sure, a lot of contemporary poetry is unintelligible to the uninitiated reader. But just as much is plain-spoken, personal, and relevant to the world outside academia, like the work of Yusef Komunyakaa.

Released in 1988, Komunyakaa’s collection Dien Cai Dau is a major work in the literature of the Vietnam War, one which details the day-to-day realities for an American soldier in the conflict. Komunyakaa rarely engages in syntactical or rhetorical fireworks, the sort that drive students batty; instead, his poems are so dense with sensory imagery that they become dreamlike (from “Starlight Scope Myopia”: “Smoke-colored // Viet Cong / move under our eyelids…”). The obvious standout is the final poem, “Facing It,” wherein the speaker reflects on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but every poem is thought-provoking and worthy of classroom discussion.

 

7. Mother Love, by Rita Dove (1995)

Mother LoveTo round out this accidental trio of poetry collections, here’s a book that straddles the line between Millay’s formalist magic and Komunyakaa’s deeply detailed free verse. Rita Dove’s Mother Love is a long sequence of loose sonnets, and part of the fun of reading it is figuring out which aspects of the tradition (length, rhyme, meter, subject, volta) is Dove employing in a given poem and which she is ignoring. In purely practical terms, it’s a great way to gauge students’ understanding of the tradition’s formal requirements.

In less clinical terms, Mother Love is also great way to teach students how to take an old story and make its wholly their own. The collection is a rewriting of the myth of Persephone, with an emphasis on how she relates to her mother Demeter, played out in the present day. The mythological/fairy tale retelling is already a popular genre, but seeing how it plays out in verse could make for a fun in-class exercise. If nothing else, share the joys of the “The Bistro Styx” with everyone you meet. You could cut the mother-daughter tension in that poem with a steak knife.

 

8. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich (1997)

Voices from ChernobylWhen I was first composing this list, I thought about including some more works of history, such as Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit or John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat. But while books like those cover topics which often go undiscussed in high school history classes (the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala, post-WWII Japan), as texts they tend to be dry and rather conventional. The material that these writers tackle is vital to understand, but their particular expression is not necessarily as compelling.

But a book like Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is another matter entirely. Collecting the personal accounts of scores of people affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster in modern-day Ukraine, Alexievich’s book is a testament to the power of letting people tell their own stories in their own voices. In its arrangement of the individual testimonies, Voices from Chernobyl is also a reminder that just because journalist lets their subjects do the talking, that doesn’t mean they have no power over how the final project is presented.

 

9. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro (2001)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, MarriageBefore, I said that poetry needed more presence in high school curricula, but short stories could probably make the same claim. At least in my experience, short stories were either used as supplementary material for a novel (like reading Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” alongside The Awakening), or as a means of chewing up class time after hitting all the syllabus material. And as for contemporary short stories, the sort that would fill out an issue of The New Yorker, well, those simply didn’t exist; I didn’t realize people still wrote short stories until undergrad. So why not at least give students some Alice Munro to chew over?

Munro is, I will concede, a challenging writer for students. Her stories are emotionally intense in a way high school might not immediately relate to, and her use of achronological storytelling and multiple points-of-view can take some getting used to. But at the same, the condensed short story form is a nice way of introducing students to such complications, as opposed to dropping a similarly difficult novel-length work on them. I’ve picked Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because I’m especially fond of its contents (the title story and “Queenie” are wonderful pieces), but really, any Munro collection could fulfill this role. At any rate, she’s Canada’s first Nobel Laureate—why not put her on the syllabus?

 

10. So Much Synth, by Brenda Shaughnessy (2016)

So Much SynthI fear this list has become too academic, so let’s close things out with a book that’s a bit more fun. I’ve raved about Brenda Shaughnessy a couple of times on this blog before (e.g., my list of most read authors), and I’ve praised this book in particular. And of all the books on this list, I think Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth is the book that’s most relatable to a high school audience. The early poems in the collection concern people coming to terms with their sexuality, while the “mix tape” poems are wonderful examples of literature in conversation with pop culture.

But it’s the centerpiece of the collection, “Is There Something I Should Know?,” which would most intrigue me in a classroom setting. A sprawling, 27-page poem in which the speaker recounts the various mishaps of adolescence, “Is There Something I Should Know?” is a work which perfectly captures the way that one remembers what it was like to be a teenager, a time when we “just dumped rage and hurt, yearning / for finer feelings, not the indignities [we] suffered.” To read someone who’d survived high school express the sensation of doing so, and expressing it so well, would have been more than welcome when I was fourteen.

*          *          *

Well, there’s my list, but what do you think? Which books would you like to see added to high school reading lists? Did you in fact read any of these books in high school? Let me know in the comments!

Recent Publication: Review of “Not Elegy, But Eros” by Nausheen Eusuf (The Hopkins Review)

Eusuf Review

I’m happy to announce that my review of Nausheen Eusuf’s debut poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (NYQ Books, 2017) has just been published in the most recent issue (11.3) of The Hopkins Review.

Special thanks must go to David Yezzi, for encouraging me to try my hand at a poetry review; to Katherine Sharpe, for her patience as an editor; and, of course, to Nausheen Eusuf, for writing this wonderful collection.

Rather than leaving you with an excerpt of the review, I’ll quote the beginning of “Selfie,” one of my favorite pieces in Eusuf’s book that, alas, I did not have the space to talk about in the piece itself. I hope this will encourage you to give Not Elegy, But Eros a read.

excerpt from “Selfie”

If self’s the man, she’s the wife
who follows, shadow-faithful
through your twilight haunts
and midnight jaunts, who knows
your revels and your despair,
your zits and your stomach pits…

Not Elegy, But Eros is available through the publisher, NYQ Books, as well as through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you’d like to read my full review of it, you can subscribe to The Hopkins Review.

Recommended Author: Álvaro Enrigue

Álvaro Enrigue first came to my attention while I was assembling materials for my sports literature course. I was looking for a strong piece of fiction to round out the week on tennis, and came across Pooja Makhijani’s list of recommended tennis books at Electric Literature. Both the brief plot description and the strikingly simple cover of Enrique’s novel Sudden Death (trans. Natasha Wimmers, Riverhead, 2016) immediately caught my eye, and as luck would have it the JHU library had a copy in its collection. I checked it out, and was soon transfixed.

Sudden DeathSudden Death is, by design, a difficult novel. The central action of Sudden Death is a fictional tennis match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio. Although, when I say “tennis,” I don’t mean the modern form of the game, the sort we associate with Roger Federer and Serena Williams, but rather the much older game of real tennis, which only passingly resembles the current version of the sport. A major challenge of the novel is figuring out the rules of real tennis; for example, serves had to bound off the roof of the spectator’s gallery to be valid. This fact makes the match itself difficult to follow, but also gives the proceedings the manic energy of a duel—which, we learn as the novel progresses, is exactly what this tennis match is.

But the duel between Quevedo and Caravaggio is really a mechanism for framing various digressions into history and politics, from the execution of Anne Boleyn to Spanish colonial administration in the Americas. It’s a novel that deliberately blurs the boundary between fact and fiction: presenting actual contemporary documents alongside fabricated ones, slowly stretching historical anecdotes before one starts questioning their veracity. For instance, it is true that Jean Rombaud was the executioner summoned from France to behead Anne Boleyn, but it is not true that he had tennis balls made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.

I will admit that, while I admire Sudden Death greatly, it’s a difficult novel to love. The research (and the “research”) can overwhelm the book at points, and the narration tends to distance the reader from the characters. It’s the sort of novel that will inspire you to write a thesis, but it’s not as likely to give you an emotionally transcendent experience. Fortunately, for those wanting a smidgen of sentiment with their stories, a new essay by Enrique will have you covered.

Recently published on ESPN’s website, Enrique’s latest piece explores his ever-changing relationship with baseball, from his childhood in Mexico, when he roots for the Cafeteros de Córdoba but can never see them play at their home park, to his adulthood in the United States, where he takes his son to as many Baltimore Orioles games as possible. While Enrique’s love of baseball never leaves him, what the game means to him evolves as he goes through life. It’s a wonderfully thoughtful exploration of sports fandom.

Though certainly not to the extent as in Sudden Death, history and politics play a role in his newest essay as well. His family’s support of the Cafeteros mark them as provincials in the more cosmopolitan Mexico City, and economic crises compel him to leave Mexico, and Mexican baseball, behind. But in this piece, personal reflections reign supreme, even when they take on some philosophical significance. Consider this passage on the sports fan’s greatest virtue, loyalty:

I think it’s impossible to change teams once one has made a decision: You can admire some generation of players or develop a deep respect or even some care for a franchise, but your team is your team because it becomes fixed in your brain at an age when small things are huge. Once, talking about soccer, the late Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia—an unbiased, philosophical, and quiet man—told me in an unexpected rapture of passion: “Only perverts change teams.”

Or take the essay’s conclusion, after Enrique and his son go to their last O’s game before the latter goes off to college:

Childhood is a planet with a population of one person, but on a very few lucky days, our memories and those of our children cross paths, like in an eclipse. That day I came out of Camden Yards understanding something that took me years to grasp: that loyalty to a team can be a two-direction road. We inherit objects of devotion from our parents, but sons and daughters leave a legacy for us too. The Coffee Drinkers stand untouched in the crystal box of my memory, but the Baltimore Orioles are my team. They are the unexpected bequest of my son.

Erudite and perceptive, bold and direct, Enrigue is a writer I’m glad to have found, and I eagerly await more of his work. I hope this short piece will encourage you to check him out, too.

If, after looking up Enrigue, you want more reading recommendations, I recently discussed Stephen King’s 1990 essay “Head Down,” which, coincidentally, is also about children and baseball.

The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is the using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,
And the food had been transfigured,
Changed into a weak, old whiteness,
Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.