I try to read steadily all year long. But for some reason, March seems to be the month I double down on books. Perhaps this is a personal kind of March Madness. Among the books I read (or am reading):
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, by David Treuer
There, There, by Tommy Orange
The River Swimmer, by Jim Harrison
Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins, by Terrance Hayes
The City and the City, by China Mielville
Antwerp, by Roberto Bolaño
Upstream, by Mary Oliver
I’m not an organized reader. I don’t have a favorite genre. I just like good writing — what I see as good, engaging writing. I read JIm Harrison, for instance, because people have been telling me for years that I should. I saw a copy of The River Swimmer at a favorite used bookstore and decided it’s time to meet Mr. Harrison. The River Swimming is actually a collection of novellas, one of which is “The River Swimming” — a piece of magical realism set in the Chicago area and north. It struck me as a story written by a combination of John Cheever and Cormac McCarthy, a world in which toughness and tenderness entangle. I suspect I’ll be reading more of Harrison in the future. His writing is wonderfully lyrical and the stories just pull you in.
I picked up The City and the City (for the second time) because I had it in my mind that it serves as a great metaphor for our current divided nation: the haves and the have-nots living side by side but experiencing life differently. In Mieville’s world, the two cities are intertwined. It’s illegal to cross from one to the other except through a single port of entry. Of course, in the book, a murder takes place in one city and the body is discovered in the other, which forces a fascinating entanglement of the two cities. In all, it’s a remarkable feat to bring this semi-dystopian world to life — and it does, in a slant way, speak of those who have and have not in our nation, and of the secretive forces of power that are, as always, supremely selfish.
Reading There, There and The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee together has been my most conscious reading decision. Both books were gifts from my thoughtful, culturally attuned wife. But I also heard so many good things about There, There that I would probably have found it on my own. And it did not disappoint. It’s a beautifully crafted novel about Native Americans living in and around Oakland, CA. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia in the story. Though they try, no character can find peace, can escape the effects of generations of repression. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee was the logical follow-up — given that it covers the the experiences of Native Americans from 1890 to the present. Treuer’s book feels like essential reading for all — or at least for anyone who wants a clearer picture of the Native American story in the 20th century. More than anything, Treuer wants us to understand that the story is still unfolding, evolving, continuing. Native Americans have been on this continent for thousands of years. There are here still — finding a way to survive against the onslaught of so much hatred, deceit, bigotry and indifference.
Of course, I picked up Mary Oliver’s Upstream because of her recent death. Oliver, arguably, has had a greater impact on this world than any other contemporary poet. I know there are critics who dismiss her poetry as too obvious or romantic or simply too nature focused. But she has had an impact on me as a writer who would rather take to the woods for inspiration than to the city streets. Mostly, I admire her dedication to her craft and to the life of a poet. In “Power and Time,” she explains her stance. And offers this warning to writers who vacillate:
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.”
I was about to write something about the answer to the title, Why Read Moby Dick? But I think it’s better to let people discover that for themselves. Suffice to say that Nathaniel Philbrick is a huge Melville fan, especially of this iconic American novel. I am, too. You can see the seeds and foundations of just about all of contemporary American life in Moby Dick. I enjoyed reading the perspective of an uber-fan.
The only book here I can’t recommend is Antwerp. Roberto Bolaño is an amazing writer. I loved the writing in The Savage Detective, a later novel. But Antwerp is nearly impenetrable as a story. It’s not that it’s not interesting. There are some passages that astound. But this novel novel so stylized that it holds the reader at the greatest possible distance. It’s as if he’s defying us to criticize him for refusing to worry about character and plot. There’s a weird dreamlike quality to it all. A dream that is sad and lonely and fragmented— which I suppose explains why it’s kind of a cult classic.
From Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins:
My friends were all the wounded people
The black girls who held their hands
Even the white boys who grew into assassins