Saturday, December 30, 2017

Why We Need Poetry: The Best Books I Read This Month

It's an unusual month for me when my two favorite books were nonfiction, but such is the case for December. Still, Louise Erdrich kept fiction from being totally disgraced!

The Best Books I Read This Month

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler
Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich
Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, by Helen Thorpe

The Hate U Give has been something of a sensation as a young adult novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. While author Angie Thomas is clearly outraged by the police killings of black men, the novel is not a diatribe; rather, it's a complex look at how teenager Starr Carter reacts when her friend Khalil is killed by a police officer in her presence. The decisions she must make about what to tell people, including her white friends at the suburban private school she attends, whether to take a public role in speaking out about the killing, and how to speak up on Khalil's behalf are problems are young people should not have to face. While some characters seem constructed to represent a point of view (Starr's police officer uncle), the book still works and would be a great stimulant to conversation with young people.

Light the Dark is a collection of essays put together by Joe Fassler, who interviews writers for the "By Heart" column in The Atlantic.  The focus is on what inspires writers and how that inspiration affects their creative work. Among the authors represented: Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Edwidge Danticat, Khalid Hosseini--the list goes on and on. The authors' processes and views of literature are incredibly diverse, as is what they value--narrative, truth, language, communicating with a reader, finding the voice, writing an opening line that works. Considering how they read their "inspirations" is a model for reading, interesting to me as both a reader and a writer. Two odd things I can't keep myself from sharing: Hanna Yanagihara is inspired by Lolita but has never read past the first 100 pages--for her it's all about Nabokov's language. She seems to actively resist the narrative and the characters. Jeff Tweedy, a songwriter, mumbles sounds while he sings his melodies; he lays tracks over each other, so that his mumbles rest on top of each other. But then he listens to what he has recorded and "hears" actual words and ideas in the mumbling, which then become lyrics?!?   Highly recommended.

Future Home of the Living God is a dystopic novel, set in the near future when climate change has continued, with many negative consequences, and evolution has reversed itself, with women giving birth to babies that have regressed on the evolutionary scale (i.e., become more monkey-like). The first part of the narrative seems to be an almost comic story about Cedar Hawk Songmaker finding her biological family; Cedar Hawk is Native American but was adopted by an Anglo couple despite the laws that discourage such adoptions but wants to find her birth family for a variety of reasons (they do not have the special powers she hoped they would). But then the narrative shifts and becomes the story of Cedar Hawk's attempts to elude the powers that are imprisoning pregnant women for nefarious purposes. Much about the book was confusing to me and I don't think it is Erdrich's best work--but it's still worth reading and pondering. It may even merit a second read.

I resisted Helen Thorpe's first book for a long time but really liked it when I finally read it. Then I repeated the pattern with Soldier Girls, a look at three Indiana women who served in the National Guard, with deployments to Afghanistan (all three) and Iraq (two of the three). Much about their stories was interesting, but I was particularly struck by two points: (1) how difficult the readjustment to civilian society is whether you saw combat or not, whether you come home injured or not and (2) the extent to which we do actually have what Thorpe refers to as "the economic draft"--two of the three women are in the Guard because their financial circumstances made it one of their few options (the third had more enthusiasm for the military but still had financial issues as well). Thorpe raises the issue of whether, given the potential damage to children,  mothers should serve overseas (interestingly, I read an interview with her when the book was published, in which she said she had not gone to Afghanistan or Iraq as part of her reporting because she had a young child and she didn't want to take the risk); personally, I would raise a similar question about fathers (and sons and daughters and husbands and wives). I also would question the title, though I get the reference to the Shirelles song (or I assume that's the reference)--these are women, not girls. All of that notwithstanding, Soldier Girls is well worth reading.

Also Read

Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain--a story full of pain not redeemed by what feels like an inauthentic happy ending.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin--Baldwin was a gifted writer and observer of society, but this autobiographical novel did not, for some reason, move me.
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson--Since I hadn't seen the movie, I didn't know this was another zombie/vampire book, but it was free from Audible!
Meet Me at the Morgue, by Ross McDonald--Classic noir.
I Know a Secret, by Tess Gerritsen--I've already forgotten the plot of the latest Rizzoli and Isles mystery.
Gray Mountain, by John Grisham--a screed against coal mining and strip mining particularly masquerading as a novel.
Deadfall, by Linda Fairstein
Absolute Power, by David Baldacci
16th Seduction, by James Patterson

Resolution for 2018: Read fewer mediocre mysteries.

Favorite Passage

Intentions always look better on paper than in reality.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

We forget as readers of long form fiction that at one time we didn't know how to do that--we had to acquire the skill through cultural education.

William Gibson, quoted in Light the Dark

I think it demonstrates why we need poetry, why we need songs--to say the things that can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn't have to have poetry, you wouldn't have to have songs.

Jeff Tweedy, quoted in Light the Dark

. . . there's a degree to which literature's means and methods are unknowable. We don't know what's happening when somebody reads a poem. We know that even if a writer labors and labors to make a precise text, much will be lost in translation--we'll have no real idea, even, how much gets through. It gives me tremendous respect for the difficulty and variety of language.

Ben Marcus, quoted in Light the Dark

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