What I’m Reading – February

The last two months have been really busy with teaching and writing projects, so I’ve had less time to read.  However, I’ve still worked on a few books, mostly fiction and poetry.  Here’s a review of what books I’ve been reading lately:

our-andromedaOur Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy.  Poetry; Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

This book is full of delight and fear.  The delight is in language -the quickness of thought, the puns, the hinge of double meanings.  Shaughnessy writes with wit and energy, and following the complexity of her thoughts through the thin, precise pieces of language she carefully welds together is interesting and difficult.  The fear comes in the subject matter, which is the family: being a lover and a mother, a sister and a community member, is scary and potentially destroying.  The final poem, to her son, is full of the pulled-apart, destructive bargains that mothers make for their children.  The negotiation is almost with the language itself – that if Shaughnessy can wrestle it into perfection, maybe she can save what needs to be saved.

Euphoria by Lily King.  Fiction; Grove, 2015.

My book club read this, and my book club is full of scientists.  As such, we had totally different reactions to the novel: they wanted to know how much of this story, which is based on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, is true and factual.  Were the tribes in Papua New Guinea real?  Had the author invented those scenes of cannibalism, sex, and violence or were they researched and verified?  I, on the other hand, was swept into the lush, provocative sentences and the gorgeous storytelling.  However, all of us agreed: with its tropical romance, this was a great escape novel for wintertime in Oregon, but we were vaguely uncomfortable with the centering of three white characters and the backgrounding of indigenous characters, who are mostly an exotic backdrop for the British/Australian/American love triangle.  Then we started to wonder if King, with her focus on anthropology’s gaze toward the exotic, was aware of this and questioning her own storyline, interrogating her own characters, just as we were.  Then we couldn’t decide, so we just had more wine.

devorThe Devourers by Indra Das. Fiction; Del Rey, 2017.

This was the second book in the last months I read about cannibalism, which was a weird leitmotif in my reading (also see Han Kang’s The Vegetarian for more on the violence of eating).  This innovative fantasy novel takes place in two times/places: one in modern India, when a college professor meets a werewolf; and the other several hundred years in the past, in Mughal India, as the Taj Mahal is being built.  The older story is a retelling, inked on human skin by a race of superhuman beings who consume human flesh and live in a world that is frighteningly amoral and yet sympathetic.  They see humans the way we see chickens: as something to be devoured.  And yet there is a strange need for love, a longing for connection.  It’s a bizarre, disturbing, visceral book, with a lot of descriptions of bones crunching and skin being torn off, and I enjoyed it while also being immensely grossed out.  The grossness, however, was less from the physical acts than the moral ones, as Das’ characters struggle to treat each other as – ultimately – human, with all the compassion and self-interest that entails.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.  Fiction-ish; Houghton-Mifflin, 1990.

I read this in graduate school and revisited it because it relates to a writing assignment I’m working on.  Speaking of treating each other as human – O’Brien’s Vietnam war stories vibrate around the difficulty of remaining a moral, compassionate being in the chaos of violence and loss.  Based on his experiences as a soldier, and yet consciously embroidered with fiction, the story questions the ability of any war survivor to write a true war memoir.  O’Brien himself was a soldier, and many of the things in the novel did happen to him, and yet he shows how truth warps under the pressure of violence.  Still an incredible book.

ruinsFrom the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia by Pankaj Mishra. Nonfiction; Picador, 2013.

Complex and informative, this book traces the influence of Western colonialism on modern Asian history.  Mishra’s subjects are three Asian intellectuals who responded to colonial encroach and represent lines of thought that influenced modern nation-states.  By threatening the cohesive identity of Asian nations, the West forced them toward nationalism; Asian societies responded to colonialism by first attempting to mimic and catch up to the West technologically, and then forming powerful national identities.  Mishra traces these identities through to the modern day, in communist China, in fundamentalism in Islam, and in India.  Because his focus was on the three intellectuals, I found his arguments stayed in the realm of the educated elites of those times, but it was such a fresh perspective for me that I didn’t mind.  Highly recommended reading.

Window Left Open by Jennifer Grotz.  Poetry; Graywolf Press, 2016.

I wanted to like this collection more than I actually did.  There were great things about it: descriptions of animals and landscape; a poet’s mind that was interested in the process of observing and thinking; language that moved through that thought process with skill and precision.  And yet I found the poems too simple to stick with me: beautiful meditations on consciousness that faded immediately when I put them down.

vegThe Vegetarian by Han Kang.  Fiction; Hogarth, 2016.

My third novel about the visceral, disturbing, erotic aspects of food.  This book follows the descent into mental illness of a young woman.  She stops eating meat, viewing it through the lens of blood and carnage, and her family can’t handle it.  Their violence toward her and manipulation of her, their obsession with her obsession, is the real story.  This was tough to read – often very darkly disturbing and very stark.  I tore through it because I wanted to finish it and get it out of my system quickly, and yet I couldn’t just stop reading.  Gripping, weird, and awesome.

3 sections by Vijay Seshadri.  Poetry; Graywolf Press, 2015.

This won the Pulitzer, so I expected to like it, and I did.  It took me a while to get into, however; Seshadri has that modern, detached voice in a lot of his poems, like he’s voicing over a film, which I found a little initially off-putting.  The more I read, however, the more I got into the rhythm of what he was doing and began to see the details: how he shifts perspectives and camera angles to re-examine the same subject from a totally fresh way.  How he uses jargon and everyday language to jab at a subject’s complexity.  How he, the writer, is there as observer and witness to himself.  I also adored the essay he wrote on fisheries, which is in the center of the book and is the most personal piece, the one that most revealed the writer’s autobiographical self.

the-faceThe Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki.  Nonfiction; Restless Books, 2015.

Novelist Ruth Ozeki sits in front of her mirror for three hours and basically writes down everything that comes into her head.  Sound boring?  IT’S NOT.  It’s a meditation on old age and wearing masks and the performance of the self; on growing up mixed-race, on belonging, on Buddhism, on the role of time in everything we do.  It’s a short little Kindle single and it’s crazy interesting if you’re into philosophy, religion, or psychology.  Also, I recently interviewed Ruth Ozeki for an article and you should read it here!

Have you read any of these books?  Have any recommendations based on what I’ve been reading?  Leave me a message below!

Cover photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Sam Greenhalgh.

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