Without: In which I read some poetry and cry

Following my request for book recommendations on grief, E. lent me Donald Hall’s Without, a poetry collection exploring the dying and death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon.

The collection takes the form of letters written to Jane and coalesces around Hall’s experience preparing for and responding to Jane’s death. The scenes described are – unsurprisingly for poetry – intimate, focused and breathtakingly poignant.

You might be a person who thinks a) I don’t read poetry or b) I don’t want to read about grief/dying. And if the case of b), fine. Don’t read this one. But if you’re interested in the theme, don’t let the form in this instance throw you off. The poems are entirely accessible to even the most resistant of poetry readers.

My only caveat with the collection is that you’ll want to take your time. I started off reading in a rush – as I would with a novel – but discovered that by giving myself a few days between each poem or a few poems they lingered and filled my mental space far more than ingesting the whole thing in one sitting. Not true, additional caveat: avoid reading the collection on public transit unless you’re okay with public displays of waaa.

 

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An American Marriage: Terrific.

Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is great. It follows Celestial and Roy and the dissolution of their marriage after Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. They’ve been married for a year at the point, and the book explores what the obligations are for each individual in marriage/committed relationships when the circumstances of the initial arrangement change. To what do we owe one another in perpetuity? When do we get to change our minds? What must we sacrifice for the institution, or for the other person, and when do we get to privilege our own happiness? What rights do we have (to be selfish) (to expect steadfast commitment)?

Celestial and Roy’s marriage is constrasted with that of their respective parents. Each set of parents offering up a different vision of the same questions of commitment. I was moved by the scene of Roy’s father (name escapes me) burying his mother and wondered at that kind of grief.

As much as it is a book about the institution of marriage, it is also about manhood. If both (marriage and manhood) are imagined in our current moment to be under threat, or flailing, or failing, this book harkens back to a vision of each that is, if not idealized, than at least coherent. Roy puts forward visions and versions of what it means to be a man, as if to test the hypothesis or to have them rejected. In so doing the reader can also examine whether there is any value to be had in a constellations of qualities we might call ‘manhood,’ or whether this institution, too, has served its function and can be dispensed with like so many fast divorces.

It’s also a book about race and the state. Much of Celestial’s concern about how to respond to Roy’s experience of incarceration is to know that he is a black man in America and that his experience of the criminal justice system is visited upon him and his family in ways that are at once extrordinary in their injustice and perfectly ordinary in their frequency. Celestial must weigh whether she has particular obligations, in addition to those of being a wife, because she is the wife of a black man falsely accused and imprisoned.

Taken together the book explores resonant questions and does so with beautiful, captivating writing. It’s well worth a read before the end of the summer.

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The Obelisk Gate: I Maybe Need to Learn to Say No (or stop caring about the dishes).

I’m busy. It’s like a thing. You say you’re busy, I say I’m busy, we both secretly think the other person isn’t that busy, because like *I’m* the busy one. And also how important we are because we’re busy. Like unimportant people spend their time like sprinkles at a sundae buffet: willy nilly. But really I just seriously miscalculated how long some things would take and overcommitted and like all the things and never want to disappoint or say no and have a thing to prove and want to defy the expectations and stereotypes and so here I am – well past my bedtime, on an unmade bed (because the sheets had to be washed tonight to make a full load), trying to recall a book I read three weeks ago and promised myself I would blog two weeks ago and even while I was reading it was pretty sure I’d rather just be staring out the window but thought I had to post something here and so read it and thought it was mostly ridiculous but also halfway fun if you could put aside just wanting to nap. Or to plan a Farm Animal Theme Day for the Family Cottage because I also organized everyone into theme days for the cottage and my family can’t say no either and so now we’re all doing it and probably secretly hating that we have to organize it but we’ll have fun while it’s happening. Right?

Oh you wanted a book review and not… whatever this is? Right. Here we go:

The Obelisk Gate is… a book. Second in the Broken Earth series. I read the first one a few weeks ago and wrote about it here. This one also has characters and a setting and a plot. I honestly can’t remember much except there are some battles in a gemstone cave and some plans for more battles and maybe an epic mother-daughter fight (which is great because enough with the father-son fights) is coming. Some scenes with limbs being ripped asunder. A few where you’re like ‘who is who?’ ‘what is happening’ and ‘why does this matter’ but that’s probably because I couldn’t remember the rules of the world well enough from the first book, or the mythology/history of the world, to really be that invested in the next phase. Suffice to say I’m not going to read number three.

Or probably ever read for fun again. (Don’t worry, all, I’m almost done An American Marriage and I promise I’ll write its review when I’m not so overtired I’m seeing spots. (because I’m so busy and important, remember?)(but actually everything is a-okay, or at least it will be if I can get organized enough to relax at the cottage. Ha!).

 

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The Female Persuasion: You can be a feminist and still hate this book. I hope.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion is a hot book of this summer. It’s getting all kinds of press, and hits on all the right issues to get people reading: Trump, feminism, Trump, millennials, Trump, feminism. And it does a few things that make it worth talking about, but it is generally bloated and boring and an unapologetic ode to white, middle class feminism (#notthatthere’sanythingwrongwiththat).

Our protagonist, Greer, is an up and coming millennial in search of her “outdoor voice” (I cannot even begin with the over used ‘metaphor’ in this book of the outdoor voice. There are chapters titled ‘outdoor voice’ in case you missed the point that This Is A Woman Claiming Her Right to Speak and Be Heard). She meets famous second wave feminist Faith Frank and believes Faith – her mentor! her vision of power! her inspiration! – can provide her life with direction and meaning. Faith, on the other hand, is busy making compromises and doing what needs doing in order to advance equality for women. She’s a stalwart of the old guard, and also an embodiment of the limitations of idealistic politics. Which come on. Let’s be clear with one another: compromises will be made. Need to be made.

Then there’s Cory and his relationship with Greer, and his mother, and his brother. And the sort of man we want feminist men to be. And the queer best friend who takes her time finding herself, but ultimately does because she’s true to her values and has an inner core of resilience we can only hope to emulate after years of therapy. And the mega rich philanthropist who tries to redeem himself by throwing money at the problem of inequality (without *cough* actually giving up any of his privilege).

There’s enough there that it should be good. I mean it’s all Zeitgeist all the time. And yet. And yet. It’s just so… boring. I found Greer insufferable. I mean I GET IT. You need to learn to speak up for your own ideas. You need to find your way. Bleh bleh bleh. I don’t know. It’s probably me and the circles I travel in, but no one is spitting their drink across the table when I let slip that I’m a feminist. And the millennials I know (fine fine, I’m a millennial, though C. would point out that I’m not a *real* millennial because I was born in ’84 and so am on the cusp and besides I have a proper middle class job and can barely use my smartphone and I loathe collaboration) are mad and should be that they can’t find permanent jobs, or buy houses, or pay for childcare (oh wait, none of these issues come up for Greer – her issues are all about whether her fancy pants job provides *enough* life satisfaction).

Uhh.. that wasn’t my point. Coming round to it now. The book also takes aim – through the guise of ‘cutting edge blogs’ – at the feminists who aren’t progressive or radical enough, aren’t keeping up with the times. There’s a sort of half-hearted apology for not keeping pace with changes within feminism, and then a return to the resolution of plodding forward on the same path. I’m not hip enough to feminist currents. What I do know is this: I’m a feminist and I did not like this book. But more importantly, I think, I’m a reader and I did not like this book. It’s politics didn’t bother me, what bothered me was the cement-drying-paced plot, the absence of real character development, and the reliance on Hip to the Moment politics for making a splash.

So if you’re assembling your summer reading list, let me urge you to pass on this one. Or not. Your novels, your choice.

 

 

 

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