I’m currently reading Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s essay collection Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, which was chosen by Maggie Nelson as the winner of the 1913 Open Prose Contest. I’ve been an admirer of Sloan’s essays since her first collection, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was published.
I read Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and now I’m rereading Citizen. Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker writes, “‘Citizen’ opens with a series of vignettes, written in the second person, that recount persistent, everyday acts of racism of a kind that accumulate until they become a poisonous scourge.” As I reread, I am paying attention to form and how Rankine accomplishes the feeling of accumulation in the book.
Lit Hub’s article “The Classes 25 Famous Writers Teach” includes courses taught by Rankine and Viet Thanh Nguyen, and I plan to read texts from their classes next year. This year, I read Nguyen’s short story collection, The Refugees, which received many glowing reviews. In her New Yorker review, Joyce Carol Oates writes, “Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term ‘refugee’ precisely for the punitive violence it betrays.” She also writes, “Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable.”
In May, I attended “An Evening with the National Book Awards” at The Skirball Center, featuring Nguyen, Karan Mahajan, and Robin Coste Lewis. After the event, I went to the Los Angeles Public Library and checked out Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, which was the 2015 National Book Award winner in poetry. I also checked out Jennifer Richter’s poetry collections Threshold and No Acute Distress because I registered for Richter’s poetry course at Oregon State University. Richter’s first book of poems, Threshold, was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. As a reader and writer who is interested in chronic illness and motherhood, I found her most recent collection, No Acute Distress, compelling.
In the fall, I took Richter’s poetry craft course on hybrid forms and reread Gary Young’s book of prose poems No Other Life. Reading his work for my first term at graduate school seem like an intense moment of synchronicity. Young was one of my mentors as an undergraduate and this summer I had read with him at Bookshop Santa Cruz in celebration of the anthology Golden State 2017, edited by Lisa Locascio.
I read Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, a book of aphorisms that are witty, dark, and poignant, and found the aphorisms about desire and ambition particularly captivating. In order to learn more about Manguso’s writing process and the book, I attended the panel “Outlaws and Renegades: Innovative Short Forms” at Wordstock and listened to podcast interviews with her on Otherppl with Brad Listi and Beautiful Writers. Her previous books Ongoingness, The Guardians, and Two Types of Decay are now on my bookshelf, and I look forward to reading them in 2018.
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“There are two kinds of decay: mine and everyone else’s.” This line occurs near the end of Sarah Manguso’s deceptively slim tour de force on illness, mortality, and metaphor, The Two Kinds of Decay, and speaks to the book’s high wire acts of duality and the paradox between the primal narcissism of the individual body vs. the transcendent empathy that makes life more than a solitary hall of mirrors. Manguso — like many great thinkers before her — seems to ultimately bridge the gap between the two through the small-yet-almost-impossible act of learning to pay attention. Throughout The Two Kinds of Decay, we pay attention with her, to the almost unbearably physical descent that befell her in 1995, turning her from a typically self-absorbed Ivy League college student (preoccupied with sex and infiltrating the moneyed classes), to a frequent hospital patient suffering partial paralysis and undergoing treatments every few days to cleanse her own blood of the toxins in her plasma that were trying to poison and kill her. Manguso — also the author of The Guardians, a stunning, poetic memoir on a mentally ill friend’s suicide, is a singular writer, as distinctive and inimitable as Anne Carson, but more accessible, and her books, though unflinchingly unsentimental and devoid of any New Age mumbo jumbo, are tender, deeply spiritual beasts.
Recommended pairings: I read The Guardians some time ago, but devoured The Two Kinds of Decay — published in 2008 — immediately after Ed Hirsch’s most recent book, Gabriel, a profound meditation on grief and loss both individual and throughout (mainly artistic) history. Reading both Manguso’s books alongside Gabriel and Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, one of the most powerful books of last year, would be strong medicine, but likely more emotionally and intellectually transformative than what most philosophy or theology courses could possibly offer.
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