Pilgrim Bell: Poems

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A Year in Reading: Farah Ali

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My reading used to be a lot of old
favorites and some works by writers new to me. For the past couple of years
that has shifted. Some of the “new” writers are long gone. Some have been
around for a while.

I had bought a used copy of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea from Powell’s in Portland and brought it back with me to Dubai. I opened it two years later, and found a world within of alienation, love, and madness. There is a feeling of claustrophobia and darkness in the story; the woman’s yearning is palpable. I loved the book. I didn’t know until later that Jean Rhys had written it as a prequel to Jane Eyre. What was just as interesting to me was what she had said in an interview published in The Paris Review: “I guess I write about myself because that’s all I really know.”

Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue was a surprise. I had read Eileen first and had been told that it was nothing like her first book, and I found there was no exaggeration in that claim. McGlue is a story told at the pace of a fever-dream. I don’t think I paused very much while reading it except to perform basic life necessities.

I had first read about Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station when it won the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2020. The novel has been translated into English by Morgan Giles. The premise is fantastic—the ghost of a migrant laborer haunting a park in Tokyo. Yu Miri brings together national and personal histories, showing how the two are always connected, and how the latter, in particular, is affected by the former.

What made me get a copy of Tove Ditlevsen’s Childhood, Youth, Dependency: The Copenhagen Trilogy was Parul Sehgal’s review of it in The New York Times. Memoirs by their nature are meant to be moving; what I found different about this one was the simplicity of its language. As Tove grows into an adult, she seems to drag her childlike self along with her; it hovers right underneath her plans for success in work and relationships. It isn’t a healthy combination of selves, one sees, reading the last pages of the book.

A different memoir I have begun very recently is Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I have only finished the first book so far. Knausgaard had existed in my subconscious for some time because whenever his name comes up it is with a definite opinion attached to it, pertaining to his six-volume My Struggle series. I sort of concurred with what I read about his project, which is not the best way to form an idea about something. Also, the reading task seemed daunting. Six volumes, 3,600 pages long altogether. When I saw a used copy of the first book in the series I thought, It’s not like I’m spending a lot on this anyway. I was curious. And I discovered writing that I had never seen before. Pages of details, yes, but not there pointlessly because everything mattered. Every big and small action had a part in this life that Knausgaard was describing. An instinctive thought is that not every detail about one’s days is interesting, but Knausgaard wasn’t aiming to write a thrilling, juicy bit of Norwegian life. In this longer, more thorough writing about his childhood and, later, his father’s death, he is simply cataloging all his impressions and his actions based on those.

I read Virginia Woolf’s The Waves right after My Struggle. The two reading experiences were wildly different. The Waves is Woolf’s most experimental novel. Six characters speaking in soliloquies, except when there is a third person describing the progress of a day by a coast. These soliloquies take place from the speakers’ childhoods to adulthoods. The poetry-like prose is hypnotic, and it is incredible how the individual characteristics of these people become clearer through the progression of the pages and their lives, even as their subconsciouses have shared experiences. It was unpleasant coming across phrases such as “savages in loin-cloths” when a narrator would think about some place far away from England. Those were, thankfully, very few.

Early this autumn I had read Jakob Guanzon’s Abundance. It is a remarkable book. I love that the chapter titles are fluctuating dollar amounts that the protagonist has at different times. The protagonist is a too-real human, a father of a young child when we first meet him in the book. Like the ghost in Yu Miri’s book, this father is homeless. So much about money is tied up with circumstance, and Guanzon shows us that without making excuses for the character, with just showing us life as it is.

Phuc Tran’s memoir Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In was a moving read, a journey from his life as a child from Saigon into the suburbs of America. There were so many things that resonated with me about this: his sharpening his knowledge of books, finding music that worked for him, and finding through that other kids he felt accepted him as he was.  

Since I am writing out of sequence, this is a good place to bring in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. I had read a few essays by her previously. Her fiction is a completely different experience of course. The Flamethrowers’s protagonist is a girl we call Reno because that’s where she is from. Notably absent is Reno’s past, which was intentional, as Kushnber said in an interview. We are put firmly into Reno’s now, her artistic aspirations, her living arrangements, her movements between cities. There is history in the book and other people’s ambitions that result in lives being affected down years and in different places in the world. Even now, months after reading the book, I can still see Reno in my mind’s eye.

A book that I read very recently that was truly transformative was When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West. Call it a nonfiction novel, call it a book about science in the context of actual lives—there is no one way to describe this work. The Spanish title of this book is Un Verdor Terrible, which roughly translates to “A Terrible Greening.” There is a night gardener toward the very end who describes the way citrus trees die: how their fruits ripen at the same time and their weight causes the limbs to fall off; rotting lemons cover the ground. He says, “It is a strange sight, he said, to see such exuberance before death.” I absolutely loved Labatut’s book.

Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays was a pleasure to read as well. Other new books were Rachel Beanland’s Florence Adler Swims Forever and Brian Castleberry’s Nine Shiny Objects. In between these I picked up an old one, James Joyce’s Dubliners. I finally got a copy of Layli Long Soldier’s phenomenal Whereas, and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell. I don’t think those poems are going to leave my table.

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