A Top 5 List: Books Under 300 Pages

It’s time for another list game, this one courtesy of Shanah, a.k.a. the Bionic Book Worm: top 5 books under 300 pages. In theory, this should be a very easy list for me to compile. I read a lot of poetry collections and dramatic works, both formats where even 100 pages would be considered on the long side. But I feel that to include those sorts of books would be violating the spirit of the theme: books whose short lengths are noteworthy. As such, I’m going to restrict myself to works of nondramatic prose, i.e., works of fiction and nonfiction.

That still leaves us with a wide variety of books to examine, and I hope the list is eclectic enough that at least one book here will sound appealing. We’ll be looking at experimental essays and straightforward criticism, postmodern literature and classic fantasy. Should be a fun diversion. So, without further delay: the list.

5) The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon (152 pages)

Let’s begin with a book I would described less as “short” than as “truncated.” The Crying of Lot 49 follows Oedipa Maas, who has been tasked with managing the estate of her ex-boyfriend. In the process of untangling his complicated assortment of assets, she stumbles upon evidence of an age-old conflict between two rival mail delivery services: Thurn und Taxis, the established corporate giant, and Trystero, the underground competitor. At least, she thinks she’s found evidence of such a conflict. For while she keeps running into signs of Trystero’s existence, Oedipa is never certain that she’s not hallucinating the whole conspiracy.

This book has all the makings of an engaging thriller, albeit one with some idiosyncratic cultural references—a working knowledge of Jacobean drama is helpful for understanding the plot, for example. But what makes The Crying of Lot 49 interesting (or, if you’re less charitable, infuriating) is that Oedipa never even comes close to uncovering the truth. Instead, it abruptly ends before the title “crying,” an auction of rare postage stamps that Oedipa believes might lead her closer to confirming Trystero’s existence. Imagine a mystery show that ended right as the detectives made their first breakthrough, and you have a good idea of how The Crying of Lot 49 operates. It’s not to everyone’s taste, of course, but if you like characters with rising, unrelieved paranoia, then this is the story for you. (Alternatively, if you like A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is clearly inspired by this book.)

4) Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (176 pages)

This is music critic Carl Wilson’s contribution to 33 1/3, a series in which writers analyze one album in great depth. This book is ostensibly about Let’s Talk About Love, the 1997 Céline Dion album featuring “My Heart Will Go On,” but Wilson has much broader ambitions here. He’s interested in how an artist like Dion can be so critically loathed yet so popular and beloved, and he will not be satisfied with so simple an answer as, “People have bad taste.” Wilson spends a year immersed in all things Céline, and in doing so questions the prejudices of the critical establishment.

Books in the 33 1/3 series are pocket-sized by design, and in his book Wilson doesn’t waste a single sentence. He places Dion’s work in the context of Quebecois music history, considers critics’ traditional distaste for schmaltz and sentimentality, interviews fans of Dion from all over the world—it’s a veritable greatest hits album of sociological analysis. I enjoyed Let’s Talk About Love in much the same way that I enjoyed Andy Greenwald’s exploration of emo subculture, Nothing Feels Good, in that it’s a sympathetic but still critical account of a genre of music I have little personal taste for. It’s less important that readers and critics come away thinking someone like Dion is a great artist than that they understand what others hear in her work.

3) Chroma, by Derek Jarman (160 pages)

I said at the top that I deliberately excluded poetry collections from consideration, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sneak some lyrical prose onto the list. Derek Jarman is a towering figure in the history of queer cinema, with films such as Sebastiane and his adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II addressing queer themes in an era of heavy social stigma. But he also wrote several books, the last of which was Chroma, a series of freewheeling essays on color. Jarman, with a tight yet expressive prose style, explores all possible avenues into the concept of color: scientific, historical, cultural, and personal.

Indeed, while Jarman’s writing often resembles the fragmentary style of pre-Socratic philosophers, Chroma is an intensely personal work for Jarman: he began writing these essays on color as he was going blind from AIDS-related complications. There’s a sense of both urgency and resignation behind all of these essays, for he must enjoy the sensation of color while he can, while still accepting the inevitable with dignity. These themes come to a head in the essay “Into the Blue,” which includes a tender tribute to his past lovers who have lost their lives to AIDS, and which served as the basis for the narration in Jarman’s final film, Blue. In part because it’s the most obscure book on this list, Chroma is the book I most recommend.

2) The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin (146 pages)

So far, the books I’ve included on this list have have been dense affairs, compressing a lot of themes, motifs, and ideas into a small package. The Tombs of Atuan, the sequel to Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea, goes in the opposite direction. It tells the story of Tenar, a girl who was taken from her family at young age to serve as a priestess to dark gods in the Tombs of Atuan. When Ged, the protagonist from the first book, breaks into the tombs to steal a piece of a magical amulet, Tenar traps him in the underground labyrinth and contemplates how best to dispose of him. But slowly, she forges a personal connection with Ged, which allows her to start recovering her past identity.

The Tombs of Atuan is such a pleasant swerve as a sequel. Whereas A Wizard of Earthsea takes Ged across countless islands across Le Guin’s fictional world, The Tombs of Atuan almost completely confines itself to one location. And that setting suits the novel perfectly, as Le Guin is aiming for a work of great psychological insight. The cavernous, intricate layout of the tombs is symbolic of Tenar’s journey of self-realization, and on a logistical level it works well in literally trapping two characters in conflict together. The Tombs of Atuan also holds the distinction of being the only novel I can remember reading in one sitting, so if that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

1) Silas Marner, by George Eliot (230 pages)

Let’s close this list with a real classic, shall we? Like The Tombs of Atuan, this is another story of intense personal transformation. The title figure of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a miserly old weaver living in rural England. He has little contact with broader society until two life-changing events happen in quick succession. First, someone steals all the gold he’s been hoarding; second, a blond-haired infant wanders into his little cabin. Silas resolves to raise the child himself, and in doing so slowly finds happiness greater than all his lost wealth.

In one sense, Silar Marner is a proudly unsubtle story: the connection between Silas’s gold and Eppie (as he names the girl) is so obvious that Silas literally mistakes Eppie for the gold when she first crawls into his hut. But there’s actually lot going on underneath the surface here. Eliot uses this fable-like story to explore a number of social themes relevant to Victorian England, from the vagaries of religion to the effects of industrialization of rural English life to the public and private foibles of the aristocracy. In short order, Silar Marner stirs up the sentiments, then spurs one into thought—exactly what one is looking for in a book by Eliot. It’s almost like reading Middlemarch in miniature.


Thus endeth the list. What are your thoughts on these picks? Anything that sounds especially enticing, or am I completely off-base with these? Let me know in the comments! If you’re still looking for book recommendations, then check out my response to the Literary Fiction Book Tag.

And, as always, thanks for your time.

Literary Fiction Book Tag

I haven’t done one of those book tags that make the rounds in a good long while, have I? (I haven’t done much of anything on this blog in a good long while, but that’s another story.) Today I’d like to fix that with a post inspired by the YouTube channel Jasmine’s Reads. Jasmine is one of my favorite presenters in the BookTube community, and seeing how she’s just unveiled her first book tag, I thought I’d do my (undoubtedly minuscule) part in spreading it.

It’s called the Literary Fiction Book Tag, and it’s precisely that: eight questions on the subject of literary fiction. I recommend watching the original video below if you’d like to get a sense of the tag’s purpose before diving in.

One confession before getting started: the prompts below all refer to “literary fiction novels,” but for some of my answers I’ve used high-concept short story collections instead, both because short stories could always use more love and because, after reflection, it turns out I read a lot fewer novels of recent vintage than I’d figured. With that out of the way…

#1: How do you define literary fiction?

I have two ways of defining “literary fiction,” and I shift back and forth between them depending on how cynical I happen to be feeling. The more cynical approach is to say that literary fiction is purely a marketing term, that it says nothing about the content of the work and everything about the sort of person that the publishing and book-selling industries think is likely to buy it. You can probably conjure the stereotype of someone who reads these sorts of books: college-educated, financially well-off, probably subscribes to the New York Times and supports their local NPR affiliate. In this view of the term, “literary fiction” is a signal to this demographic that they ought to read this particular book.

I think there’s a lot of truth to this perspective, especially in a world where books are commodities and not just works of aesthetic appreciation. But I can’t deny that, when I hear a book described as “literary fiction,” I do make certain assumptions about the book’s content. As I tend to think of genres as sets of audience expectations about a given work, it would be fair to say that literary fiction is a broad genre, one that’s closer to “young adult” than it is to “western” in terms of specificity. In her video, Jasmine lists off just about every element I’d anticipate: “social, political, or human commentary; introspective character exploration; not being focused or driven by plot; and also, a large focus on language.” So long as a work meets some of those criteria, one has grounds to place it into the genre of literary fiction.

You’ll note that these two definitions are not contradictory, and in fact may support each other. It could be the case that the supply of literary fiction creates its own demand, which in turn reinforces the industry’s decision to market books in such a way. Nothing wrong with shifting back and forth between definitions when they can coexist.

#2: Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek

Wonderful, Wonderful Times follows four young adults in post-WWII Austria who are, by any objective account, monstrous. Their adolescent thrill-seeking takes the form of gratuitous violence, whether that means assaulting people in the park late at night or attempting to drown a cat to reenact a scene from Sartre. But while Jelinek is unrelenting in her depictions of moral rot, she still her has empathy for her creations. I’ve written about these characters before, so I won’t belabor the point here, but the longer the novel goes on, the more that Jelinek pricks at the façade that each of the young adults has constructed. We see, for instance, how Rainer’s obsession with existentialism covers for his own naivete, or how Sepp’s upbringing in a Communist household contextualizes his humiliating and combustible relationship with the aristocratic Sophie. The characters of Wonderful, Wonderful Times may be reprehensible at every turn, but their humanity still glows through all the grime.

#3: Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

The short version: this book is about a tennis match, in which the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio trade points in what turns out to be a literal fight to the death. But reading this book bears no resemblance to reading a newspaper write-up of Wimbledon. In Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue intersperses his descriptions of rallies with histories of colonialism in the New World, excerpts from historical documents about tennis (both real and fictional), correspondence with his frustrated editor—just about everything that he can serve up. The result is a narrative that is, admittedly, very difficult to follow at times, but the whiplash between sections works surprisingly well in simulating the experience of playing tennis. Sudden Death also has a taste for the bizarre that keeps the novel from getting too self-serious; for instance, the ball that Quevedo and Caravaggio are playing with is made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, and how that ball came to be is a significant early through-line in the novel. This book may not be to everyone’s (anyone’s?) taste, but oh, am I glad that this sort of thing exists.

#4: Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure.

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith

Public Library and Other Stories is really two books, which it alternates between. The one book is a fairly convention contemporary short story collection, albeit one with a notable fixation on literary history. The other book, though, is what makes this collection interesting to me. Ali Smith assembled this collection in response to the defunding and closing of libraries in the United Kingdom, and she includes numerous testimonials about the importance of libraries as community institutions. The testimonials not only work to justify public support for libraries, but also work to justify the rest of the collection. Remove all those heartfelt letters and Public Library and Other Stories looks like so much inside baseball, like an author flaunting their deep knowledge of the canon. With those letters, though, it becomes clear why all her literary references are so necessary: literature is embedded deeply into our lives. A world that devalues our storehouses of humanity’s literature must devalue humanity itself. Absent the structure that Smith uses here, I’m not sure the message would come across quite as well.

#5: Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Through 600+ pages of first-rate prose, Michael Chabon reveals the Golden Age of Comic Books to be fertile thematic ground for a novel. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay follows the title duo of comic book creators across about fifteen years of inspiration and turmoil, touching on a number of social and political questions along the way. What is the value of escapist art in times of crisis? To what extent do capitalist enterprises enable the spread of political works, and to what extent to they stifle it? How do people with marginalized identities maintain their dignity in a world that deems them to be of lesser value? Read the book for the thrilling conclusion! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) In addition to all these macro-level issues, Kavalier & Clay also finds time to explore more personal quandaries, from Clay’s relationship with his absent father to Kavalier’s devotion to a family facing certain death in Nazi-dominated Europe. This was one of the best books I read last year, and it gets richer and richer the more I think about it.

#6: Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is the story of two tragedies: one extraordinary, the other distressingly common. At the center of the novel are the Lisbon sisters, five isolated girls in suburban Michigan who all take their lives in the span of about a year. That’s the extraordinary tragedy. The distressingly common one comes through in the novel’s narration. In a style reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” The Virgin Suicides is told in a first-person plural POV, in the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who were obsessed with the Lisbon sisters. But for as authoritative as that POV sounds on the page, for as much information and documentation that the men marshal forth about the girls, it becomes clear by the novel’s end that they never actually understood them. Jeffrey Eugenides casts the narrators as so trapped in their own subjectivities, so caught up on their own perceptions of those mysterious Lisbon sisters, that they were incapable of providing what the girls most needed: somebody who would actually listen. The boys are the perfect embodiment of one of humanity’s most frustrating failures.

#7: Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel.

The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez

A short story cycle based on Francisco Jiménez’s childhood, The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child follows Panchito, a fictionalized version of the author, as his family of migrant farmers from Mexico moves from town to town in California in search of work. The Circuit is the only book I know of that blurs the line between literary fiction and children’s literature. Jiménez’s language is unadorned and has repetitive quality that suggests a story told both about and by a child, yet the struggles Panchito’s family goes through are relayed with the quiet subtlety that one would expect in a work written for adults. This duality is reflected in the institutions that sell this book. The Circuit is published by the University of New Mexico Press, suggesting an academic audience, but it’s also available through Scholastic, the foremost publisher of children’s books in the United States. It’s designed to teach children empathy for people in Panchito’s position, but especially in today’s political context, this book has value for readers of any age.

#8: What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

I’m going to co-sign Jasmine’s answer from the video above and say that literary fiction and fantasy could do with some more co-mingling, if only so I could have a go-to fantasy author not named Ursula K. Le Guin. In particular, I think that the two genres are simpatico in terms of finding language inherently pleasurable, rather than it just being a vehicle for telling the story. I’d love a literary fiction novel that is a fun to read, and to read aloud, as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is in Middle English, with its wild alliterative meter and wildly complicated chivalric rituals. The challenge, of course, would come from reconciling fantasy’s emphasis on plot and lore with literary fiction’s indifference to those elements.


That wraps things up for me! If you’d like to jump in on this little survey and share your recommendations in literary fiction, then consider this an invitation. Thanks to Jasmine for concocting this tag, and thanks to you for time in reading this. Take care!

The Catered Affair (1956): A Review

An overlooked example of mid-20th-century social realism, The Catered Affair (dir. Richard Brooks, 1956) has quite the kitchen-sink pedigree. The film is adapted from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky and features Ernest Borgnine in a leading role, both of whom had just won Academy Awards for their work on the working class love story Marty (dir. Delbert Mann, 1955). On the more sensational end, director Richard Brooks had come to prominence for writing and directing Blackboard Jungle(1955), the seminal film about conflicts at an inner-city school.

The Catered Affair marries those two strains of realism, pairing family drama with energetic blocking and dialogue, and the result is a touching, if somewhat clumsy, depiction of life. At the movie’s center is Aggie Hurley (played by Bette Davis), a middle-aged housewife in The Bronx whose husband, Tom (Borgnine), is a cab driver who’s been saving money for years to purchase his own taxi medallion. Their daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) has just announced her marriage to her longtime boyfriend Ralph (Rod Taylor). The young couple would like to have a small, quick wedding so they can fit their honeymoon into Ralph’s teaching schedule, but Aggie would prefer that her daughter have the big fancy reception “with all the trimmings” that Aggie never got to have. Money is tight, though, and the process of planning the wedding brings on more conflict than anyone involved had bargained for.

In a brilliant bit of casting, the filmmakers decide to place glamour icon Bette Davis at the heart of action. There’s a productive irony in seeing Davis in the role of a woman who yearns both for the finery that’s beyond her social class and for the passionate love that her marriage to Tom denies her. Not only does the casting of Davis highlight the tragedy in Aggie’s character, but also it sells the audience on the hope that, just maybe, the Hurleys will be able to pull this affair off. If Bette Davis isn’t capable of giving her daughter a ritzy blowout, well, then who exactly is?

It’s Debbie Reynolds, however, who is the real revelation of the film. Primarily known for her roles in comedic films such as Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)—or, if you’re my age, as the grandmother in the Halloweentown TV movies—Reynolds shows a startling amount of dramatic range throughout the film. She’s still got that light charm about her, especially when Jane and Aggie are out dress shopping. But her facial expressions during tense family moments help sell the scenes; like the audience, she is so often caught between concern for and exasperation with everyone else on screen. And the one time she let’s her temper flare, when she decides to just call the whole shebang off, is the single most cathartic moment in the film.

The film is strongest in its first act, which counterintuitively is also the least filmic portion of the movie. There’s a real sense of commotion when Jane announces her wedding plans, not because it’s earth-shattering news, but because life in a cramped, lower middle class apartment is naturally chaotic. Characters are constantly entering and exiting the scene like they’re walking on and off stage, which means that everyone has to keep restarting their conversations to catch the newcomers up. The use of static long takes is similarly more theatrical than filmic, but those shots serve to underscore just how little breathing room is to be found in the apartment.

Unfortunately, The Catered Affair suffers from some structural problems which blunt its emotional impact. Most notable among these issues is the role of Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald). Uncle Jack primarily functions as a source of conflict for the rest of the family: he’s hurt about not being invited to Jane’s original wedding ceremonies, so he’s one of the motivations for having a big affair in the first place. But he also has a subplot involving his lady friend (Dorothy Stickney) that in theory should flesh out his character, but it’s so thin that it merely pads out the run time.

Further, the editing is less than inspired, and in some places actively detracts from the picture. Scenes will sometimes cut between two differently lit shots, briefly making it difficult to track the geography of the image. The use of transition effects is uniquely at odds with the staid realism of the rest of the picture; I suspect that fading to and from black, or even straight cuts, would have served the project better. There’s also a glaring continuity error during the dinner with Ralph’s parents, where Ralph teleports to the opposite side of the table. Normally, such a slip would be inconsequential, but the filmmakers repeatedly frame him and Jane tightly together while their respective families flaunt their wedding gift ideas. Their unified powerlessness to direct their own wedding is central to the scene, so to break that visual image is uncharacteristically sloppy.

Despite that, on the whole I’d say that The Catered Affair has a great eye for detail. I love, for example, how the light bulb hanging in the Hurley’s kitchen flickers when someone shuts the door to the ice box, or how a fellow tenant just happens to be carrying groceries upstairs when the Hurleys are about to start arguing. And I appreciate how, when the family is looking for a banquet hall to rent, the filmmakers decide to have someone sweeping up paper streamers from a previous engagement. The film’s world feels lived in, and if there’s one sense any kitchen sink drama must achieve, it’s that. For all the film’s faults, I’ve seen seen few classic Hollywood pictures that manage to capture daily life so effortlessly.

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.

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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!