A Form of Mourning

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My friend Elizabeth Leo died unexpectedly two years ago. She was only 34 when she fell from a bridge that connected the campus Lutheran church to its parsonage, a crumbling four-story building where she was living for free. The church held a memorial the following August. There, over small plates of raw vegetables, with photographs of Elizabeth arranged on a table behind us, I talked to Natalie Homer, a mutual friend, about Elizabeth’s poetry. Elizabeth had published very little of it during her life. But her poems needed readers—we both felt that. They deserved to circulate.

Natalie and I spent the next several months editing her poems for publication and the next year arranging for publication. That process will culminate this spring in a chapbook, Bloodroot and Goldenrod.

We met in person and over the phone. Natalie had Elizabeth’s master’s thesis, 53 poems all told, and a folder with another 20 miscellaneous poems in it, all of them undated. We read the poems aloud and talked about each one, what we liked and didn’t. Often we marveled. Sometimes we complained: why this epigraph? why that final, hanging line? I loved these conversations. They were slow with lots of silence. We savored the lines. We grieved.

How do you make a selection from the relatively few extant poems of someone who can provide no explanation, offer no defense, and express no preference? What criteria do you use? By what standard do you decide which poems deserve to be published and so survive beyond the poet’s short life? Bloodroot and Goldenrod is the posthumous collection of a poet still in the early phase of her career. Do you simply choose the “best” ones? What if a “bad” poem has a “good” moment in it or even just a characteristic one? What if it tells an important part of the story? But what story?

Elizabeth’s book contains frightening hints of her own death, suggestions, even, of suicide. In one poem, she writes, “The breeze has cut out, or the sun has quit.” At the end of another: “And most of this, it’s all temporary./The slip of a fingernail beneath thin plastic—I could make it look like I was never here at all.” Immediately after news of her death broke, people began to speculate. On Facebook, there was talk of violence: assault, murder. For several days the police would not rule out homicide. The rumors of violence were finally dispelled when the police department released a statement saying that they believed her death to have been due to an accidental fall. They sketched a scene in which Elizabeth had gone out onto the bridge to smoke and fallen the 12 to 15 feet to the sidewalk, where she died from a traumatic head injury. So there it was: an accident. It made more sense than a random assault. Those of us who knew her, though, wondered about suicide.

In what condition had she ventured out of her apartment? With what purpose? Where exactly had she been standing when she fell? It was early May. The semester had ended. It would have been quiet, some traffic, the Mon River lumbering through town just down the hill. A big, mute moon. Did she say goodbye to it? Or was she frantic and inward and alone? Had she looked one last time through her favorite books, The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert, Czeslaw Milosz’s Collected Poems, Watership Down, The Outsiders, their pages marked up with pencil and stiff from cigarette smoke? And her cat, Jonas, had it watched? What even happened?

There are no answers to these questions. At least not ones for us to know. What happened and how and why: all that has been written down in the book of days in an illegible script. I don’t want to guess how or why Elizabeth died. Better to grieve for a friend and fellow poet who died way too young. She felt that she was at the end of something, and she was, in a way: recently divorced, apparently fired from her job at the university. She could not see a way forward. But her life’s work—her poetry—was just beginning.

Elizabeth’s poems are all heavy blooms and hidden centers, insistent but unmannered repetitions. They circle obsessively around an unnamed absence. Loss gives them their urgency, their dark humor, and their beauty. They risk beauty. I love that about them. They do not suppress their desire to sing, full- throated and purple-stained, to quote Keats (who hovers in the background of so many of these poems).
Adiantum

There was a magic cupboard and inside Adiantum danced.
Little girls could fall in sideways leaning too far
to sniff a heavy aster in the dark.
A heavy bloom in the dark.

A heavy bloom in the dark.
Flower as a cardinal destroyer, wrecker of hearts.
In life Elizabeth was shy and kind, critical, generous, full of secret reserves and keen judgments. Her knowledge of plants was encyclopedic. She knew their names but also how they looked and felt and what they needed to grow. She had a talent for helping things grow and flourish in the garden and in the classroom. The first two speakers at her memorial service were former students. Elizabeth worked as an adjunct instructor, a precarious job with low pay and little stability. She supplemented her meager wages from the university with part-time work at a garden store. When I knew her she lived in the country, in a dumpy, poorly lit apartment that she could not afford with her cat, her books, her many plants, and not much else, a few large, hard plastic cups that we drank wine out of, a bowl to hold candy when visitors came over.

She was wracked with doubt. She loved poetry. I hope that love comes across in the collection. And the rage, too, which simmers just beneath the surface—“Jack, we say. Jack, Jack, we sing. Jack: shrapnel edge of our last can”—and the wonder—“the tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile”—and the loss, everywhere that intimacy with loss. “Blue rose,” she writes in one poem, “layered petals on petals./Blue Lizzy. Someone once had a name for me like that.”

As Natalie and I read and discussed the poems, I kept wanting to ask Elizabeth why she had made the decisions she had, good and bad. To encourage her, to convince her, finally, that she was immensely talented and that her poetry deserved to evolve, become more and less itself over the years. The poems in this collection have within them such a big future, so many possible roads. We wanted that future to be present in the collection. To account not only for the poet she was but the poet she might have become. In moments I see her move beyond the influence of her mentors, move in the direction not of what a poem should be but what, in her hands, it is. I see her authority emerge. These are small moments, small and painful, because to see all that—in a turn of phrase or a stanza break—is to feel the loss very acutely.
“…We seek belief
in shoveling soil, in blisters.
And we find it there. There. There is no trouble
and the garden is lucky in the sun,
brothers. Running waters unfurl the ferns.
Let’s follow, together, the moonflower
tonight, when it blooms a silver trumpet…”
There. There. There, one right after the other. It’s like your foot got caught in a rut, or your shirt snagged on a branch. It’s stubborn, awkward, unmusical, and new. It disrupts the subtle iambic rhythm that had been established in the previous lines and that returns in the subsequent lines, when the music picks back up, and the poem shifts in an instant from the insistent, nearly inarticulate “there. There. There”—the language of someone just learning to speak—to the expertly rendered “Running waters unfurl the ferns.” The meter returns in the form of trochees, an anapest, and an iamb. The vowels sing: brothers, waters, unfurl, ferns, ferns becoming follow, follow becoming (moon)flower.

Or here, two lines from another poem:
November is good for quick dark and closing.
I’d like done with it. This or that or anything.
The plainness of that second line, made up as it is of pronouns—I, it, this, that, anything—the latter three of which lack any meaningful antecedent, contains such expressive force when set against all the beautiful names that run through the collection: adiantum, artemesia, trillium, “wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum.” This or that or anything. It has the effect of distortion in a pop song. I hear a fury buried in there and also a future, in which she is willing to push language all the way to collapse.

Her poems find an uneasy balance between blank verse and ordinary speech, what Robert Frost called the “strained relation” between these two contrasting musics. The sonnet—its size and compression—is the deeply etched blueprint under every poem in the collection.
Cricket Season

Mums and leg-fiddles on the air.
It is the season of astringents, of turning into
or turning away. The crickets sound quick
in the low weeds by the woods, but up here
on the porch boards they are huge, gun-gray
in the lamplight, are dead-slow, silent and heavy
as threat. Those away in the grass, they call
next, next, next: a tearing paper song.
Then, the startling luck-black of them beneath a begonia’s leaf
sings a deaf song, soon, soon.
The locust leaves are already yellow
and I am already sick of their falling.
I push my glasses on top of my head.
I let the world go blurry and still.
And so it was the sonnet, those sessions of sweet silent thought, that we felt should shape the collection, its characteristic movement inward and outward. Bloodroot and Goldenrod tells the story not of a life exactly but a consciousness, if the distinction makes sense. The story of a self walking and kneeling, breaking and mending. Of someone living close to the earth and its objects, in the garden “knuckle-drag[ging] through [her] mistakes,” digging dirt out of her nails with a paring knife “in the kitchen, under the kitchen lights.” Someone “low as a beast and holding.” In these poems we find Elizabeth on the porch or in the yard or at her desk, naming, remembering, musing, and then returning again to the world. That movement, the drift of consciousness, is hard to achieve on the page and harder to make compelling to a reader. Elizabeth does.
If You Are Worried, It’s Only Tomorrow; If You Are Scared, It’s Only the Dark

My Scilla, dear, as blue and low as the best sky—
              as Trillium blooms a green drake
              —nothing hatches broken, no bark breaks.
Wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum
              fall down your throat lightly: a collar.
              A collar, lightly falling down your throat.
The tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile.
There’s no word for our Liriope bed. Stay comes close.
The wall paint peels lovely and pink.
The sun sets upon negotiation only,
and I can forgive anything.
I knew Elizabeth mostly as a poet. I would have liked to have known her better. She left behind images and metaphors, the music of her lines and stanzas. And more than that. She left for us her desire to turn experience into something else, something more, something lasting, into wisdom, beauty, and form. To sing.

Tuesday New Release Day: Lispector, McCracken, Ozick, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth McCracken, Cynthia Ozick, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Apprenticeship: “Lispector’s dense and singular romance (after The Besieged City), first published in Brazil in 1969, arrives in a rich new translation from Tobler and illuminating afterword by Sheila Heti. Lóri, a primary school teacher leading a solitary existence in Rio de Janeiro and unable to stomach her ‘bourgeois middle class’ milieu, becomes captivated by the elusive Ulisses, a philosophy professor and self-described excellent teacher (‘basically I like to hear myself talk about things that interest me,’ he explains). The two speak on the phone, meet for drinks, and visit a local swimming pool, but Ulisses tells Lóri she’s not ready for the relationship he wants, a claim that drives the bulk of Lori’s stream-of-consciousness analysis (‘she was bound to him because she wanted to be desired’). Ulisses speaks often of his ‘apprenticeship’ to something only aspired to—he’s ‘in the middle’ of it, he says, but Lóri feels he’s ‘infinitely further along’ than she is. The purpose of their apprenticeship is never expressed, though one of Lóri’s goals is to feel ‘alive through pleasure’ instead of pain, and Heti’s revealing afterword leaves the reader with much to chew on. This deep immersion into the vicissitudes of love will delight Lispector devotees.”

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Souvenir Museum: “McCracken’s sly, emotionally complex collection (after Bowlaway) focuses on characters uprooted from their usual surroundings. In ‘The Irish Wedding,’ Jack Valerts brings his new love, Sadie Brody, from Boston to Ireland to meet his family at the wedding of his older sister, where Sadie confronts for the first time the slapstick and sometimes threatening dynamics of the Valerts while holding her own with a quick wit. ‘Miss Mickle All at Sea’ follows the increasingly fraught mental state of an actor known for playing the villain on a children’s show as she travels from Amsterdam, where she’s been celebrating New Year’s Eve, back to England, in the company of an elderly balloon animal artist. In ‘Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark,’ four-year-old Cody’s two fathers take him to a German-themed water park in Galveston, Tex., where older father Bruno’s fear of drowning comically affects his negotiation of a wave pool. McCracken has a gift for surprising similes—’shoes damp as oysters’; ‘bored lifeguards, staring like unemployed goats’—that ignite the reader’s imagination, making great fun out of ordinary settings and scenery. Each story opens to reveal a whole life spent within the web of a family, chosen or not. Full of gems, this collection is a winner.”

Farthest South & Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Farthest South & Other Stories: “Rutherford (The Peripatetic Coffin) grips with evocative detail and subtle rhythms in this accomplished collection, where doubt and danger simmer underneath the surface. Illustrations by Anders Nilsen, often featuring animals or children in stark scenes of nature, reinforce the motif. In ‘Ghost Story,’ a father tells a bedtime story about ‘the seal lady’ to his young sons while waiting for his wife to return home after her nightly swim. The effects of a story being told on its listeners is more explicit in ‘Fable,’ an eerie tale involving a fox and a dead child (‘each scene, familiar and not, had emerged as though from some shrouded, timeless woods, taken physical shape on the table in front of them’). ‘Angus and Annabel’ centers on two young siblings who grieve their dead mother. The younger one, Annabel, makes ‘poppets,’ dolls with sticks and berries like their mother had taught them, an act that unsettles Angus as sparrows circle overhead. In the title story, an Antarctic expedition including children and dogs is stranded in ice near the South Pole, and those who survive are visited nightly by the skulls of those who died. Throughout, Rutherford conveys an organic, insidious creepiness. These fresh and provocative yarns are spun with craft of a high order.”

Nancy by Bruno Lloret (translated by Ellen Jones)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nancy: “Lloret’s crushingly dark English-language debut follows a lonely, recent widow who’s dying from cancer as she reflects on her life in Chile. After her diagnosis, Nancy lost her husband when he was sucked into a tuna processor at work. He was drunk at the time, so she didn’t receive any insurance money. With nothing left, Nancy reminisces about her childhood with a brother who vanished one day, a sad father who turned to Mormonism late in life, and an emotionally and psychologically abusive mother who abandoned them. There is no joy or humor here, but the writing shines with piercing descriptions of pain, drawn up in increasingly fractured minimalist prose. Blocks of heavy Xs appear as forced pauses that dictate the rhythm of Nancy’s consciousness and forge black, angular reminders of death: ‘I slept in snatches full of sad dreams XXXX the kind you never remember after you wake up, but still, when you open your eyes there’s a real ache in your chest.’ Old Testament passages open each chapter (‘Honor thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee’) and often trigger memories with stark brutality, such as Nancy’s mother’s threats to sell her to the Romany as a child. This visually striking fever dream is one worth braving.”

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Antiquities: “Ozick (Foreign Bodies) delivers a beguiling novel of a man living in the past. In 1949, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired lawyer estranged from his friends and his only son, has returned to live at the Temple Academy, the boarding school he attended as a child, which has been converted into a makeshift retirement home for its trustees. There, with his beloved Remington typewriter, he labors over his memoirs. His account revolves around two axes: his childhood fascination with the archaeological adventures in Egypt of his distant cousin Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, which Lloyd’s father impulsively joined, and a school-age infatuation with a mysterious classmate, Ben-Zion Elefantin, who claimed to be from Egypt. Ozick is adept at capturing the vicissitudes of fading memory or flashes of lucid insight, and she unspools the story at a brisk pace. While Petrie’s lively venom and wit are sometimes overdone by Ozick’s overwrought efforts to develop his private-school mannerisms (Ben-Zion Elefantin has a ‘farcical pachyderm name’; Temple retains ‘Oxonian genuflections’), the novel becomes a fascinating portrait of isolation, memory, and loss as Petrie’s health and the state of Temple become more perilous. While it doesn’t reach the heights of her greatest work, this is impressive nonetheless.”

Also on shelves this week: Southbound by Anjali Enjeti.

Bonus Links:
A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: ‘The Complete Stories’ by Clarice Lispector
Evenings with Clarice Lispector’s Newest Translator
My Hour of the Star: On Clarice Lispector
A Story Made Purely of Feeling: The Millions Interviews Cynthia Ozick
The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken
‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2008: Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2018: Elizabeth McCracken

Must-Read Poetry: April 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey by Craig Morgan Teicher

Teicher perfectly captures the teetering feel of middle-age: a lament clothed in appreciation (our gifts, collected and overflowing in our arms, can weigh us down). His first narrator remembers what it was like when his generation was “about to // inherit the world.” Now, “look // what we did, and we didn’t. / And now look at us, and it.” Now, “we look up again, decades groggy, // decades late.” What do we have to show for it? A lot, Teicher reminds us: “for joy is always / our secret, the secret of this hurried, harried life / without horses.” Let it never be trite to say that poets reveal the poetry of our lives: a tied garbage bag (“I find myself admiring the swift / dexterity with which I fashion, almost effortlessly, / the weird knot to seal off the bag from the world”), love (“We try to talk during crowded weekend days”), birthday parties (“I owe her happiness / if only because it was I, not she, / who asked for all of this: / marriage, house, for her to be.”). Teicher’s poems often rewind to the past—perhaps age 10, in Lake George, thinking: “He has this one chance / at childhood.” Years later, stretching that child toward man: “All my choices have led me right here, / to this chair, to typing who cares.” A genuine, searching, and honest book of considerable skill. Postscript: the late-collection poem “New Jersey” is magnificent. 

Connoisseurs of Worms by Deborah Warren 

A treat to read these mealy, mucky poems. Warren imbues a dewy, syrup drip to varied subjects, including, somehow, a ventriloquist’s mannequin: “Pumped too full of windy vocables, / he unsags—swells up—he’s about to go / some kind of crazy.” Imagine him, animated by language, softening from plastic to skin, as he “rolls the smile back in to a small pink circle / and spits a blast of shrapnel—plosives, glossals / fricatives.” An epigraph from Job (“I am…a companion to owls”) spurs an appreciation: “Owl, in spite of your reputation / as an icon of sagacity, / Job, comparing himself to you, referred / not to wisdom but to desolation.” Job was wrong: “mistaken.” Warren goes anywhere, inhabits anything: it is fun to see a poet so willing to embrace metamorphosis. Strung by playful song, she can also (pleasantly, but pointedly) shock you: “Being thin, I feel mortality / more than most,” a “frame under the flesh.” “I’m a living ossuary,” she writes. A great book.

If God Is a Virus by Seema Yasmin

Yasmin, a medical doctor who investigated outbreaks for the Epidemic Intelligence Service from the CDC and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, brings considerable experience and a poet’s vision and sense to her depiction of Ebola’s spread through Liberia. To read this work during the coronavirus pandemic is to recognize Yasmin’s prescience, and her ability to unpack how disease intersects with prejudice, race, myth, and poverty. “Dark deaths matter more if they speak / English,” she begins one poem, lamenting how awards are won “for photos of brown faces / eating expired medicines smeared in peanut / butter aid.” Yasmin is deft at inhabiting the voices of those she encountered, including a fortune teller who says that terror “descends here every fourteen years or / fourteen hours depending on your lineage or // ancestor’s prayers.” The woman tells a child: “ask not why war // comes, ask: Why does peace keep leaving?” Yasmin quotes Marwa Helal’s line “poems do work journalism cant,” while demonstrating that the synthesis of those modes can create revelations.

The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz (translated from Spanish by María Baranda and Paul Hoover)

“Tonight I shall sing matins in Heaven” said San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross) on his deathbed—after asking the friars around him to “read aloud some verses from Song of Songs.” The enigmatic text greatly influenced him, although he was certainly aware of its sensuality (spiritually and theologically, of course, those elements were essential to the power of his own poetry). As the translators of this collection note, San Juan produced hundreds of pages of exegesis to “clarify his message,” so to speak. With the Spanish on the left in red and the English on the right in black, this is a gorgeously presented book with equally stunning verse. “This life that I live,” San Juan writes, “is the absence of living; / and so is endless dying / until I live with you; / listen, my God, to my words, / that I don’t desire this life; / I die because I don’t die.” Other poems like “Romances” teem with the type of deep paradoxes that sustain faith: “In the beginning resided / the Verb, and it lived in God, / in whom it possessed / its infinite happiness.” The rare poet whose pondering theology exists of songs of love—to God, creation, and our attempts to transcend.

In a Sentimental Mood by Ivana Bodrožić (translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać and Damir Šodan)

The title piece is such a wonderful love poem in spite of itself, in spite of war and pain (we feel Bodrožić tiptoe toward sentiment, even acknowledging that “Jazz is so fragile” in the first line, like she is gently placing the poem in fear it might crack). “We packed up,” she writes, and “selected music for the car, / spread out the map over our knees, / then the earth split open, the road ahead unfurled, / the rivers spilled out of their riverbeds.” The lovers are “searching” for something, and soon find themselves in a hotel room, where they “shudder underneath a single sheet / so thin” while hearing “aggressive men howl, / herding their beasts of steel.” Is language enough? “Give up on words,” she writes elsewhere: “Everything ends, anyway, in silence.” A book of bodily pain and soulful despair.

32 Poems by Hyam Plutzik

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, World War II veteran, and professor whose work arose from and was influenced by his Russian-Jewish heritage, Plutzik receives much-needed consideration here. As editor George B. Henson notes, Plutzik’s death from cancer in 1962—while in his early 50s—left his work an unfinished project. “At the first smell of fall the locusts sing / Louder by far than on the midsummer nights, / Storing song for the later silences,” he writes in “Frederick’s Wood,” his stanzas can exist as their own poems. In “Connecticut Autumn,” he writes: “I have seen the pageantry of the leaves falling— / Their sere, brown frames descending brakingly, / Like old men lying down to rest.” He often returns to a pastoral melancholy, a recognition of death as an inevitable process: “Now the swift rot of the flesh is over. / Now only the slow rot of the bones in the Northern damp.” Poets will find so much that is wonderfully true here: “The poetic process is lonely but theatrical, / Improvisation before an empty house / With the dread that prompter and stagehands will stay away.” Perhaps even more so is his coda, which ends with an affirmation: “We must stay alive, must write then, write as excellently as we can. And if out of our labors and agonies there appears, along with our more moderate triumphs, even one speck of the final distillate, the eternal stuff pure and radiant as a drop of uranium, we are justified.” This bilingual (English/Spanish edition) helps introduce Plutzik to a wider audience.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Murakami, Oyeyemi, Wideman, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Haruki Murakami, Helen Oyeyemi, John Edgar Wideman, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. ant to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about First Person Singular: “Murakami’s engrossing collection (after the novel Killing Commendatore) offers a crash course in his singular style and vision, blending passion for music and baseball and nostalgia for youth with portrayals of young love and moments of magical realism. The one thing shared by the collection’s eight stories is their use of the first-person-singular voice. Murakami’s gift for evocative, opaque magical realism shines in ‘Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,’ in which a review of a fictional album breathes new life into the ghost of the jazz great, and ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,’ wherein a talking monkey ruminates with a traveler on love and belonging. Murakami finds ample material in young love and sex, showcased in ‘On a Stone Pillow,’ in which a young man’s brief tryst with a coworker, unremarkable in itself, takes on a degree of immortality after she mails him her poetry. In ‘The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,’ the collection’s one nonfiction piece, Murakami recounts how baseball and writing, the twin passions of his youth, grew together in the stadium of his beloved Yakult Swallows. These shimmering stories are testament to Murakami’s talent and enduring creativity.”

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Peaces: “Curious characters, strange events, and mysteries abound in Oyeyemi’s delightfully bonkers latest (after Gingerbread). After hypnotist Otto Shin takes the surname of his boyfriend, Xavier, the couple, both 38, celebrate their ‘non-honeymoon honeymoon’ with a train trip arranged for them by Xavier’s aunt and with help from a young man named Yuri who inexplicably claims to know them. Accompanied by their pet mongoose, Árpád XXX, Otto and Xavier begin their journey to a destination unknown to them and soon meet the train’s operators and its enigmatic owner, Ava Kapoor, who is about to come into a grand inheritance. But Ava’s bequest is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious passenger, one they will all soon recognize as part of their respective pasts, and the trip becomes stressful for the couple as Yuri’s interventions in their lives grow suspicious. Though capped by a somewhat disjointed and confusing finale, the narrative is bolstered by its underlying blend of humor and suspense, as well as Oyeyemi’s ability to skillfully thread together the lives of her characters and show how they’ve been shaped into the people they are today. Despite its problems, this exciting and inventive novel brims with unusual insights.”

Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Subdivision: “In Lennon’s deliriously inventive novel (published simultaneously with the collection Let Me Think), a woman suffers from a bout of amnesia while staying in a strange town known only as the Subdivision. The unnamed narrator doesn’t know how she came to be the houseguest of kind if eccentric retirees Clara and the Judge, and, unable to remember her name or why she is here, she sets out to create a new life, accompanied by her digital assistant, Cylvia. But things in the Subdivision aren’t as they appear. Strangers are alternatively too familiar or too hostile; the ruins of a church feature scenes of biblical pageantry acted out behind stained glass; empty properties host “probability wells” that warp time; and perhaps most distressingly, her steps are haunted by the ‘bakemono,” a shape-shifting, malevolent spirit intent on seducing her. Lennon strikes a delicate balance, and the surreal story is only occasionally weighed down with overwriting. As the narrator dives deeper into the Subdivision, its true nature comes into focus, but with an apocalyptic storm on the horizon, can she complete her journey of self-discovery in time? This is an impressive marriage of a vibrant, tortuous fever dream and an unsentimental meditation on life and death.”

Paradise, Nevada by Dario Diofebi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Paradise, Nevada: “Diofebi’s sprawling, eloquent debut follows four characters whose lives converge in Las Vegas. On the night of Friday, May 1, 2015, a bomb goes off in the Positano Luxury Resort and Casino. Six months earlier, four people separately arrived in Las Vegas: Ray, a professional poker player from one of those ‘rare American households where moneymaking was not considered of value in and of itself’; Mary Ann, a depressed cocktail waitress from Mississippi; Tom, an Italian tourist who came to play poker after letting his tourist visa expire; and Lindsay, a Mormon journalist for whom storytelling has been ‘the one constant in her ever-changing set of ideas about her future.’ All four characters are at the Positano during the explosion, having desperately pursued their hustles to varying degrees of success (Mary Ann learns to count cards; Tom’s fear of U.S. Customs reaches a fever pitch; Ray’s skills plateau). Rather than a central plot, Diofebi pieces together a revealing mosaic of the city. In between he lays bare the cold machinations of casino operators, such as a series of layoffs of nonunion female employees revealed in an exposé by Lindsay, the fallout described by Diofebi with scathing precision. With intelligence and empathy, Diofebi delivers a powerful and unapologetic slice of Americana.”

Astrid Sees All by Natalie Standiford

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Astrid Sees All: “Standiford (The Secret Tree) makes her adult fiction debut with an infectious if overwrought tale of obsessive friendship and identity set in the gritty Lower East Side of 1980s New York City. Phoebe Hayes moves to the Upper West Side to be near Carmen Dietz, a girl from her college whose cavalier attitude and cosmopolitan sensibility instantly captivates Baltimore-bred Phoebe. Phoebe becomes enmeshed in Carmen’s life, and they move downtown to be near the nightclub scene. After Phoebe’s father dies of leukemia, she takes a job at the hip club Plutonium as a fortune-teller named Astrid, and her life revolves around partying with Carmen. But then young women from the neighborhood begin to go missing and Phoebe feels like she’s being followed. Carmen’s approval is crucial to Phoebe, though after Phoebe hooks up with Carmen’s artist boyfriend, their friendship fractures. A bizarre plot turn will leave readers scratching their heads, and stilted metaphors don’t help (‘My immune system was fighting off an infection of grief’), but Standiford evokes the setting with spot-on details, including cameos by John F. Kennedy Jr. and Andy Warhol, and she does a good job developing the friendship between the two women. Unfortunately, the missteps undermine Phoebe and Carmen’s engaging dynamics.”

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gold Diggers: “Sathian’s dazzling debut centers on the Indian American community of Hammond Creek, Ga., where the high-achieving children of immigrants compete for top grades and pageant titles. In 2006, 15-year-old Neil Narayan is part of the debate team at school, though he has always been unremarkable compared to his Duke-bound older sister and his best friend, Anita Dayal. But things change when Neil discovers the secret behind Anita’s triumphs: a spellbinding concoction made from gold, which Anita’s mother, Anjali, brews using jewelry swiped from their more successful neighbors’ homes. After Neil drinks the potion, he becomes smarter and sharper, but his newfound ambition soon leads to a tragic event that forever changes the lives of Hammond Creek’s residents. A decade later, an aimless Neil—now a struggling history PhD candidate at Berkeley—is shocked when Anita reappears with a plan that will once again test just how far he is willing to go to create the life he desires. While the stakes feel a bit lower as the final ploy plays out, the sharp characterizations bring humor and contemplation in equal measure, touching on the pressures Neil and Anita face to produce a legacy that honors their parents’ sacrifices. Sathian’s bildungsroman isn’t one to miss.”

Caul Baby by Morgan Jerkins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Caul Baby: “Jerkins (Wandering in Strange Lands) makes her fiction debut with the rich if didactic story of the Melancon family and the shadow they cast over present-day Harlem. Dominated by hard-hearted matriarch Maman, the Melancons are female healers notorious for selling fragments of the rare, skinlike caul they were born with to wealthy white buyers looking for protective amulets to ward off disease and misfortune. Indifferent to the woes of ailing Black folks in their own neighborhood, the Melancons have long scorned supplicants like Laila Reserve, who suffered a miscarriage and lost her mind after she was ejected from the Melancon brownstone, a spectacle that has reverberated throughout the community for decades. Now, only the youngest Melancon, Hallow, can uncover the truth behind her origins and the relationship between her family and the Reserves. While Jerkins effectively blends folk legend with contemporary details such as references to the Black Lives Matter movement and gentrification in Harlem, the premise is restricted by occasionally prosaic writing (‘strands of hair roamed throughout her scalp’) and the heavy-handed moral of the story, which implies that Black women who fail to support other Black women will pay a price. Still, it’s vividly conceived, and the strong plot will carry readers to the end.”

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hummingbird Salamander: “Set in a world far along the path to ecological and political breakdown, this striking mix of thriller and biotech speculative fiction from VanderMeer (Dead Astronauts) charts a seemingly mad quest by its anonymous narrator, who suggests the reader call her Jane Smith. One morning at a coffee shop in an unspecified city in the Pacific Northwest, where Jane does somewhat nebulous work at a security firm, a barista hands Jane an envelope with a storage unit address, a key, and a note. In the storage unit, Jane finds a box containing a preserved hummingbird and a note with the words Hummingbird and Salamander, signed Silvina. Thus begins Jane’s quixotic effort to discover the whereabouts and fate of probable ecoterrorist Silvina Vilcapampa, as well as the salamander mate to the hummingbird. Jane’s traveling to New York City in search of Silvina alerts mysterious foes. Attacks on Jane and her work colleagues as well as surveillance of her home prompt her to abandon her husband and teenage daughter and embark on a yearslong, possibly fruitless quest to discover the truth. Exquisite prose pulls the reader deep into the labyrinthine plot. VanderMeer reinforces his place as one of today’s most innovative writers.”

You Made Me Love You by John Edgar Wideman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about You Made Me Love You: “This career-spanning collection of work by Wideman (Brother’s Keeper), with a revelatory foreword by critic and scholar Walton Muyumba, offers a stunning showcase of Wideman’s range. In stories selected from 1981’s Damballah up through 2018’s American Histories, Wideman conveys a mastery of gritty realism, freewheeling blues, erudite autofiction, and African American mysticism, often grounded in a semi-fictional version of the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, the historically Black neighborhood where Wideman grew up. ‘Solitary’ chronicles a mother’s daylong ordeal to visit her son in prison, while in ‘Daddy Garbage,’ an iceball vendor’s dog is hell-bent on eating from garbage cans: ‘Strayhorn knew it was less holding on to puppy ways than it was stone craziness, craziness age nor nothing else ever going to change.’ Wideman shines brightest in pieces that tunnel through history or the narrator’s consciousness as they build to their reveals, such as ‘Maps and Ledgers,’ in which a writing professor ruminates on stories such as that of an ancestor who escaped from slavery. Muyumba convincingly encourages close reading of ‘Damballah,’ about an unnamed enslaved boy who honors the severed head of a man punished for practicing West African rituals: ‘listen to the head,’ Muyumba writes. If there were any doubts Wideman belongs to the American canon, this puts them to bed.”

How Ramona Quimby Made Me Brave

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1.
We didn’t know he was dead when we entered the room, but it didn’t take long to confirm it.

November 6, 1991.

I was a curly-headed kindergartner who figured his grandfather would live forever. I figured wrong.

Standing in the doorway of my grandparents’ bedroom that day, I watched as the paramedic’s hands hovered above my grandfather’s chest like a bee afraid to land. At last, he found his mark: smashing his hands into my grandfather’s heart in an act that looked more deadly than lifesaving.

Until that moment, death had seemed a hypothetical—something that could happen, but that didn’t necessarily have to happen. As long as you ate your veggies and buckled your seatbelt, you’d be blessed with eternal life.

My grandfather’s death ran contrary to that thinking.

In my first existential murmuring, I wondered: Why bother with broccoli if we’re all going to die anyway?

I didn’t voice this sentiment, because I didn’t voice much of anything back then. I was a relatively quiet child to begin with, though I became abnormally quiet after my first brush with death. Some days I struggled to work up the courage even to say hello to my teacher, or my bus driver, or my friends. Parrots held longer conversations than I did.

My reluctance to talk never seemed like a problem until it suddenly was one; my elementary school informed my parents that I wouldn’t be graduating from kindergarten to first grade alongside my peers. Instead, my silence reserved me a spot in a yearlong purgatory called “Reading Readiness,”—a loosely defined “catch-all” class for those of us not yet emotionally or academically ready to continue on.

I didn’t mind. After all, it was there, on a carpet square in Ms. Pfleiger’s classroom, where I was first introduced to a character named Ramona Quimby.

She and I became fast friends, though we were an odd couple: she the outspoken, unruly, and nonexistent one, while I was quiet, well-behaved, and cripplingly aware of my own mortality.

Over the next few years, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books became my sacred texts. I turned to them in times of trouble, leaving the crumbly roads of the real world in favor of the smooth sidewalks of Ramona Quimby’s Klickitat Street.

Ah, Klickitat Street! The name alone sounded like sanctuary. Cleary once said she’d selected the name because it captured “the sound of knitting needles.” But to those of us from out of town, it was more than that: it was a sun-dappled, tree-lined, living monument to childhood. A landscape run amok with milkmen and paper routes and little red wagons.

The greatest tragedy that ever occurred on Klickitat Street was the passing of the Quimby’s cat, who died of natural causes. It was the kind of loss I could get behind. One that required but a moment of silence.

2.
When Beverly Clearly died on March 25 at the age of 104, my first thought was: how on earth was she still alive?

It seemed somehow incomprehensible that a woman born during the Wilson Administration had only just left us. I credited Cleary’s longevity to vegetable eating and regular seatbelt use. She lived as long as 13 8-year-old Ramona’s combined; a breathtakingly long life, during which she sold more than 91 million copies of her books.

That’s a lot of Ramona Quimby, whose spunky outspokenness paved the way for generations of young readers to live ferociously. More pluck than poise, Ramona Quimby entered the room like a Mardi Gras parade, trumpeting trouble wherever she went. But it was never real trouble, merely the misadventures of a young person trying to crack wide her world. Her life was the laboratory through which kids like me could run our own experiments. What are the consequences of cracking an egg over your head? Or locking a dog in a bathroom? Or doodling in a library book? Ramona had answers for all of the above.

Yet Ramona Quimby endures not because of what she did, but for what she felt while doing it. Beverly Cleary, who was 8 years old in 1924, somehow never forgot the anxieties of that age. She tapped into that turmoil, encouraging Ramona to take the road that didn’t always lead directly to happily-ever-after. The more one read, the more one realized that it wasn’t all smooth sidewalks on Klickitat Street.

One night when I was 7 or so, I stayed up late reading Ramona the Brave. Ramona was up late, too, anxious about her father’s late return from a night of bowling. Book in hand, I turned the pages as fast as I could, desperate to give her a little relief. That night Ramona said her prayers, “then repeated them,” Cleary wrote, “in case God was not listening the first time.”

I couldn’t speak for God, but I was sure listening, and I called out to poor Ramona trapped on the page.

“Your dad’s going to be fine,” I promised. “In books like yours, dads always are.”

Pages later, Ramona heard the rumble of her father’s car, followed by the squeak of the door, then the sound of the thermostat turning.

Upon finding his daughter still awake, Mr. Quimby sternly (but not too sternly) told Ramona to go to sleep. Which she did, now that she could.

For me, Ramona’s greatest act of bravery was that she wasn’t afraid to be scared: a lesson I myself was only beginning to learn.

“What’d I tell you, Ramona?” I whispered. “Didn’t I tell you he’d be back?”

Smiling, I placed the book on my bedside table and flicked off the light.

For too long, my heart had felt too small to bear the loss of the man who wouldn’t be coming back.

But my heart was bigger now. And I was bigger now.

And with every word, the weight lifted.

Marvelous Mutable Marvell

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Twelve years to the day after King Charles I ascended the scaffold at Whitehall to become the first European sovereign decapitated by his subjects, and his son had the remains of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector during England’s republican decade and the man whom as much as any other was responsible for the regicide, exhumed from his tomb in Westminster Abby so that the favor could be returned. Interregnum signified dreary theocracy, when the theaters were closed, Christmas abolished, and even weekend sports banned. By contrast, Charles promised sensuality, a decadent rejection of austere radicalism. But if there was one area of overlap, it would be in issues of rapprochement, for though pardons were issued to the opposition rank-and-file, Charles still ordered the execution of 31 signers of his father’s judgement, remembered by the subject of this essay as that moment when the king had “bowed his comely head/Down as upon a bed.” Even the dead would not be spared punishment, for in January of 1661 Cromwell was pulled from his grave, flesh still clinging to bone, languid hair still hanging from grey scalp, and the Royalists would hang him from a gibbet at Tyburn.


Eventually Cromwell’s head would be placed on a pike in front of Westminster Hall where it would molder for the next two decades. Such is the mutability of things. Through this orgy of revenge, a revolutionary who’d previously served as Latin Secretary (tasked with translating diplomatic missives) slinked out of London. Already a celebrated poet, he’d been appointed by Cromwell because of his polemical pamphlets. After the blanket pardon he emerged from hiding, but still Charles had him arrested, perhaps smarting when in 1649 the author had described Royalists as a “credulous and hapless herd, begott’n to servility, and inchanted with these popular institutes of Tyranny.” By any accounting John Milton’s living body should have been treated much the same as Cromwell’s dead one, for he was arrested, imprisoned, and no doubt fully expected himself to be flayed and hung up at Tyburn. But he would avoid punishment (and go on to write Paradise Lost). Milton’s rescue can be attributed to another poet a decade his junior.  

Once a keen supporter of Cromwell, but now the new government completely trusted this younger poet and his word was enough to keep Milton from the scaffold. Before the regicide he’d been a royalist, during Interregnum a republican, and upon Restoration a royalist again, all of which earned him the sobriquet of “The Chameleon.” That perhaps impugns him too much, for if Andrew Marvell understood anything it was fickle mutability, how in a mercurial reality all that can be steadfast is merely the present. A man loyal not to regimes but to friends. He was born on this day 400 years ago, he is among the greatest poets, and the relative silence that accompanies his quadricentenary speaks to his major theme: our eventual oblivion. “Thy beauty shall no more be found,” Marvell’s narrator warns in his most famous poem, and it might as well be prophecy for his own work.    

“His grave needs neither rose nor rue nor laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done; we may think about him… for our own benefit, not his,” writes T.S. Eliot in his seminal essay “Andrew Marvell,” published on this day a century ago in the Times Literary Supplement. Just as John Donne had been known primarily for his sermons, so too was Marvell remembered chiefly as a politician (he was elected as an MP prior to Restoration, a position he stayed in through his death), until Eliot encouraged critics to take a second look at his verse. By Eliot’s recommendation, Marvell was now understood as one of the greatest poets of the century, perhaps only lesser than his friend Milton. Jonathan Bate writes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems that his “small body of highly wrought work constitutes English poetry’s most concentrated imaginative investigation of the conflicting demands of the active and the contemplative life, the self and society, the force of desire and the pressure of morality, the detached mind and the body embedded in its environment.” Perhaps Marvell deserves a little bit of rose or rue or laurel. Yet his quadricentennial passes without much of a mention, though presumably some other writers will (hopefully) consider his legacy today. A quick Google search shows that several academic societies are providing (virtual) commemoration, including a joint colloquium hosted by St. Andrews, and appropriately enough a Marvell website maintained by  the University of Hull in his northern English hometown (which features this insightful essay by Stewart Mottram about Marvell and COVID-19). Yet by comparison to other recent literary anniversaries—for Milton, Mary Shelly, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, of course, William Shakespeare—there has largely been quiet about Marvell, even though Eliot once said regarding his poetry that a “whole civilization resides in these lines.”

Marvell published only a handful of lyrics in his own life, and while he authored examples of virtually every popular genre of the time, from ode to panegyric, country house poem to satire (though not epic), he stretched their bounds, made them unclassifiable and slightly strange. Having written across three major periods of 17th-century English literary history—during the Caroline reign, the Commonwealth, and then Restoration—he awkwardly fits within both of the two dominant traditions of that age, metaphysical and Cavalier poetry. “Was he classic or romantic, metaphysical or Augustan, Cavalier or Puritan… republican or royalist?” asks Elisabeth Story Donno in the introduction to Andrew Marvell: The Critical Heritage, and indeed such ambiguity threads through his verse and especially his life. This Hull-born son of a stern Calvinist minister who after dalliances on the continent possibly converted to Catholicism (tarred on return as now being an “Italo-Machiavellian”), who served kings and republicans, and who seamlessly switched political and religious allegiances.


The great themes of Marvell’s biography and his poetry are mutability and transitoriness; his verse is marked by the deep sense that as it once was, it no longer is; and as it is, it no longer shall be. “Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved,” writes Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets. “A sanctioned social order can be ended with an ax, love is finite, we grow old.” With an almost Taoist sense of the impermanence of life, Marvell casts off opinions and positions with ease, and even his own place within the literary firmament is bound to change and alter. “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” as Marvell astutely notes. A poet who has “no settled opinions, except the fundamental ones,” writes Schmidt, though his “political readjustments in times of turmoil have not told against him. There is something honest seeming about everything he does, and running through his actions a constant thread of humane concern.” Steadfast though we all wish we could be, Marvell is the poet of Heraclitus’s stream, always reminding us that this too shall pass. “Even his name is slippery,” writes Bates, “In other surviving documents it is as variously spelt as… Marvell, Mervill, Mervile, Marvel, Mervail. We are not sure how to pronounce it.” A convenient metaphor.

However Marvell pronounced his name, it’s his immaculate words and the enchanted ways that he arranged them that are cause for us to return to him today, a poet for whom his “charms are as real as they are hard to define,” as Schmidt writes. Marvell has no great drama in his oeuvre, no Hamlet or King Lear, he penned no epics, no Paradise Lost. Donne, one of his great influences, was more innovative, and George Herbert provided a more unified body of work. And yet in about six or so poems—”The Garden,” “Upon Appleton House,” “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” the sequence known as the Mower poems, “Bermudas,” and of course “To His Coy Mistress”—are among the most perfect in the language, all written around 1650, when the poet acted as tutor to the daughter of Lord General Thomas Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army before Cromwell. Schmidt argues that “Most of his poems are in one way or another ‘flawed’… [the] tetrameter couplets he favored prove wearying… Some of the conceits are absurd. Many of the poems… fail to establish a consistent perspective… Other poems are static: an idea is stated and reiterated in various terms but not developed… There are thematic inconsistencies.” Yet despite Schmidt’s criticism of Marvell, he can’t help but conclude that “because of some spell he casts, he is a poet whose faults we not only forgive but relish.”

It’s because of Marvell’s overweening honesty when it comes
to those faults, themselves a function of the world in flux, which is to say a
reality where perfection must always be deferred. In “The Garden,”
one of the great pastoral poems, he describes “The mind, that ocean where
each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find;/Yet it creates, transcending these,
/For other worlds, and other seas;/Annihilating all that’s made.”  His “Upon Appleton House,” which
takes part in the common if retroactively odd convention of the country-house
poem wherein the terrain of a wealthy estate is described, contrasts the artifice
of the garden with its claim to naturalism; in “An Horatian Ode Upon
Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” he gives skeptical praise to the Lord
Protector (back from a genocidal campaign across the sea), where the “forward
youth that would appear/Must now forsake his Muses dear,/Nor in the shadows
sing/His numbers languishing.” Mutability defined not just Marvell’s
politics but his poetry; steadfastly Christian (of some denomination or
another) he gives due deference to the eternal, but the affairs of men are
fickle, and time’s arrow moves in only one direction.

History’s unforgiving erraticism is sometimes more apparent, and Marvell lived during the most chaotic of English centuries. When the Commonwealth that Marvell served collapsed, and Charles II came back from his exile in 1660, it was to triumphant fanfare in a London that was exhausted after years of stern Puritan dictatorship. Crowds thronged the streets wearing sprigs of oak leaves to welcome the young King Charles and the spring of Restoration. In the coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, the 30-year-old king is made to appear the exact opposite of priggish Cromwell; he is bedecked in ribbons and lace, tight white hose and cascading violet velvet, his curly chestnut wig long in the French style (as he would have picked up in the Sun King’s Court at Versailles) with a thin brunette mustache above a wry smile, a royal scepter in one hand and an orb in the other. If Cromwell was a Puritan hymn, then Charles was a baroque sonata by Henry Purcell. Marvell learned the melodies of both. His contemporary biographer Nigel Smith notes in Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon that the poet “made a virtue and indeed a highly creative resource of being other men’s (and women’s) mirrors.” What is espied in a mirror, it must be said, depends on what you put in front of it. Mirrors are ever-changing things. Such is mutability.  

There must be a few caveats when I argue that Marvell’s fame has diminished. Firstly, to any of my fellow scholars of the Renaissance (now more aridly known as “early modernists”) who are reading, of course I know that you still study and teach Marvell, of course I know that articles, dissertations, presentations, and monographs are still produced on him, of course I know that all of us are familiar with his most celebrated poems. It would be a disingenuous argument to claim that I’m “rediscovering” a poet who remains firmly canonical, at least among my small tribe. Secondly, to any conservatives reading, I’m not suggesting that Marvell has been eclipsed because he’s been “cancelled,” or anything similarly silly, though honestly there would probably be ample reason to do so even if that were a thing (and as perfect a poem as it is, “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” is problematic in the least), but bluntly his stock isn’t high enough to warrant being a target in that way. Thirdly, and most broadly, I’m not claiming that his presence is absent from our imagination, far from it. If anything, Marvell flits about as a half-remembered reference, a few turns of phrase that lodge in the brain from distant memories of undergraduate British literature survey courses, or a dappling of lines that end up misattributed to some other author (I’ve seen both “Times winged chariot” and “green thought in a green shade” identified with Shakespeare). Modern authors as varied as Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Ursula K. Le Guinn, William S. Burroughs, Terry Pratchet, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Archibald MacLeish, Primo Levi, and Arthur C. Clark either quote, reference, allude toward, or directly write about Marvell. Even Stephen King quotes from “To His Coy Mistress” in Pet Sematary. Regardless, on this muted birthday, ask yourself how many people you know are aware of Marvell, among a handful of the greatest poets writing during the greatest period of English poetry?

“Thus, though we cannot make our Sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” So concludes Marvell’s greatest accomplishment, “To His Coy Mistress.” Like an aesthetic syllogism, the poem piles an abundance of gorgeous imagery in rapid succession to make an argument about how the present must be seized, for immortality is an impossibility. Of course, the conceit of the poem isn’t novel; during the Renaissance it was downright cliché. Carpe diem poetry—you may remember the term from the Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society—goes back to Latin classics by poets like Catullus and Lucretius. A representative example would be Marvell’s contemporary, the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick, and his lyric “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” These poems commonly made an erotic argument, the imagined reader a woman whom the narrator is attempting to seduce into bed with an argument about the finite nature of life. Donne’s obvious precursor “To His Mistress Going to Bed (Elegy 19)” is perhaps the most brilliant example of the form. Bate emphasizes that such a “motif is typical of the Cavalier poets… Marvell, however, takes the familiar Cavalier genre and transposes it to a realm beyond ideology.” When reading Donne, the “poems are written in the very voice of a man in bed with a real woman,” as Bates writes, most likely his beloved wife, Anne, for whom he had no compunctions about blatantly stating his sexual yearning. Marvell, by contrast, “never fleshes out his imaginary mistress,” and the result is that “He is not really interested in either the girl or the Cavalier pose; for him, it is experience itself that we must seize with energy, not one particular lifestyle.” The mistress to whom Marvell is trying to woo is his own soul, and the purpose is to consciously live in a present, for that’s all that there is.

“Had we but World enough, and Time,” Marvell begins, “This coyness Lady were no crime.” Ostensibly an argument against chastity, his reasoning holds not just for sex (though the declaration of “My vegetable Love should grow” a few lines later certainly implies that it’s not not about coitus). Eroticism marks the first half of the lyric, explicitly tied to this theme of time’s fleetingness, while imagining the contrary. “A hundred years should go to praise/Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze. /Two hundred to adore each breast:/But thirty thousand to the rest. /An Age at least to every part, /And the last Age should show your heart.” Marvell is working within the blazon tradition, whereby the physical attributes of a beloved are individually celebrated, yet Bates is correct that the hypothetical woman to whom the lyric is a cipher more than a person—for nothing actually is described, merely enumerated. For that matter, the time frames listed—100 years, 30,000, an ambiguous “Age”—all seem random, but as a comment on eternity, there’s a wisdom in understanding that there’s no difference between a second or an epoch. He similarly reduces and expands space, calling upon venerable exoticized images to give sense of the enormity of the world (and by consequence how small individual realities actually are). “To walk, and pass our long Loves Day. /Thou by the Indian Ganges side… I would/Love you ten year before the Flood:/And you should if you please refuse/Till the Conversion of the Jews.” Marvell’s language (orientalist though it may be) is playful; it calls to mind the aesthetic sensuality of Romantics like William Taylor Coleridge, where he imagines the mistress picking rubies off the ground. But the playfulness is interrupted by the darker tone of the second half of the poem.

“But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Desarts of vast Eternity.” The theology of “To His Coy Mistress” is ambiguous; are these deserts of vast eternity the same as the immortality of Christian heaven, or does it imply extinction? Certainly, the conflation of death with a desert seems to deny any continuation. It evokes the trepidation of the French Catholic philosopher and Marvell’s contemporary Blaise Pascal, who in his Pensées trembled before the “short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing.” Evocatively gothic language follows: Marvell conjures the beloved’s moldering corpse in “thy marble Vault,” where “Worms shall try/That long preserv’d Virginity: And your quaint Honour turn to dust,” a particularly grotesque image of the phallic vermin amidst a decomposing body, especially as “quaint” was a contemporary pun for  genitalia. “The Grave’s a fine and private place, /But none I think do there embrace.” In the final third of the poem, Marvell embraces almost mystical rhetoric. “Let us roll all our Strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one Ball:/And tear our Pleasures with rough strife, /Thorough the iron gates of Life.” This couple melding together is obviously a sexual image, but he’s also describing a singularity, a monad, a type of null point that exists beyond space and time. If there is one clear message in “To His Coy Mistress,” it’s that this too shall pass, that time will obliterate everyone and everything. But paradoxically, eternity is the opposite of immortality; for if eternity is what we desire, then it’s in the moment. Traditional Carpe diem demands that we live life fully for one day we’ll die; Marvell doesn’t disagree with that, but his command is that to truly live life fully is to understand that it’s the present that exists eternally, that we always only live in this present right now, so we must ask ourselves what the significance of this brief second is. What’s mere fame to that?

Marvell’s star has faded not because he wasn’t a great poet, not because he deserves to be forgotten, not because he’s been replaced by other writers or because of any conscious diminishment of his stature. His fame has ebbed because that’s what happens to people as time moves forward. The arguments about what deserves to be read, taught, and remembered often overlooks the fact that forgetting is a function of what it means to be human. What makes “To His Coy Mistress” sublime is that there is a time-bomb hidden with it, the poet’s continuing obsolescence firmly confirming the mutability of our stature, of our very lives. Marvell’s own dwindling fame is a beautiful aesthetic pronouncement, a living demonstration of time’s winged chariot, and the buzzing of the wings of oblivion forever heard as a distant hum. After his death in 1678, he was ensconced within seemingly ageless marble, and set within the catacombs of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, a gothic stone church at the center of London, though true to its name it was at the edge of the city when Marvell was alive. Ever as fortune’s wheel turns, the neighborhood is now bathed in perennial neon light—theaters with their marquees signs and the ever-present glow of electronic billboards. Red double-decker busses and black hackney-carriages dart past the church were Marvell slumbers, unconscious through empire, through Industrial Revolution, through the explosions of the blitz. 

“But a Tombstone can neither contain his character, nor is Marble necessary to transmit it to posterity,” reads his epitaph, “it is engraved in the minds of this generation, and will be always legible in his inimitable writings, nevertheless.” Probably not. For one day, there will less seminars about Marvell, and then no more; less anthologizing, and then the printings will stop; less interest, except in the minds of antiquarians, and then they too shall forget. One day, even Shakespeare shall largely be forgotten as well. The writing on Marvell’s tomb will become illegible, victim to erosion and entropy, and even the banks of the Thames will burst to swallow the city. When he is forgotten, paradoxically maybe especially when he is, Marvell teaches us something about what is transient and what is fleeting. Time marches forward in only one direction, and though it may erase memory it can never annihilate that which has happened. Regardless of heaven, Marvell lived, and as for all of us, that’s good enough. His verse still dwells in eternity, whether we utter his name or not, for what is rendered unto us who are mortal is the ever-living life within the blessed paradise of a second, which is forever present.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Greenidge, Febos, Antrobus, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Kaitlyn Greenidge, Melissa Febos, Raymond Antrobus, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Libertie: “Greenidge (We Love You, Charlie Freeman) delivers another genius work of radical historical fiction. Libertie Sampson, a freeborn Black girl in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, is pushed by her mother, a doctor, to follow in her footsteps. But Libertie, whose day-to-day experience differs from her mother due to her darker skin, is more interested in music and wants to follow her own path. In her poetic narration, she gives testimony to the injustices of white supremacy she witnesses and reflects on colorism, ‘colorstruck’ misogyny, and the potential shackles of marriage, all the while turning over the question of what freedom is. When her mother insists on treating the same white women who recoil at Libertie’s dark skin, she believes her mother ‘gave up co-conspirators for customers.’ Desperate to secure a future for Libertie, her mother sends her off to Cunningham College in Ohio, but Libertie turns away from her studies after she meets fellow students Experience and Louisa: ‘When I sang with them, my whole history fell away. There was no past, no promised future, only the present of one sustained note.’ After Libertie is kicked out of Cunningham, she schemes to bring Experience and Louisa to Brooklyn and sing for the Black community. But her road gets rockier, and a marriage proposal from a Haitian man brings mixed blessings, leading her to continue reflecting on the limits of freedom for a Black woman. This pièce de résistance is so immaculately orchestrated that each character, each setting, and each sentence sings.”

Girlhood by Melissa Febos

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Girlhood: “Febos (Abandon Me) recounts her traumatizing adolescence in eight revealing essays. As she writes in the introduction, ‘I was a happy child. The age of ten or eleven… marked a violent turn’ in which the harsh realities of true ‘girlhood’ began. She then comments on the horrific ways in which women are bent from an early age by the male ego, citing examples from classic literature (‘I recently reread Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and found it almost too painful to finish’), film, and behavioral research. In ‘Kettle Holes,’ she recalls how, at 11, a neighborhood boy repeatedly spat on her for reasons she still cannot comprehend. In ‘Mirror Test,’ at 12, she submitted to the groping of a friend’s brother and his friends as part of a ‘game,’ and it’s moments such as these, she writes, that ‘trained her mind’ to embrace values ‘that do not prioritize [my] safety, happiness, freedom.’ Over time, she adopted false ‘stories about [herself],’ which led to heroin abuse and a harrowing stint in sex work. She closes with ‘Les Calanques,’ in which she describes her recovery in the South of France on a monastic writing retreat. The prose is restrained but lyrical throughout. Raw and unflinching, this dark coming-of-age story impresses at every turn.”

Eat the Mouth that Feeds You by Carribean Fragoza

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Eat the Mouth that Feeds You: “Fragoza’s debut collection delivers expertly crafted tales of Latinx people trying to make sense of violent, dark realities. Magical realism and gothic horror make for effective stylistic entryways, as Fragoza seamlessly blurs the lines between the corporeal and the abstract. In ‘Lumberjack Mom,’ the narrator’s father nearly destroys the family’s beloved lime tree, and her distraught mother takes up a ruthless form of landscaping. In ‘Sabado Gigante,’ a young man competes on a variety show in hopes of leaving his family’s past behind him. Fragoza’s characters are earnest while remaining complicated and conflicted. They speak to diverse immigrant experiences, stand up to patriarchal structures, and ground themselves in hope for a better future. In one of the most effective stories, ‘Tortillas Burning,’ the protagonist describes her state of poverty with depth and clarity: ‘There’s a way to make room for hunger, to hold it, embrace it. But this was a lonely hunger, the kind that separates you from others, and that’s what hurts the most.’ With haunting prose and an aptitude for the surreal, Fragoza emerges as a distinctive voice.”

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Perseverance: “‘All good words in sign are said with the thumb,’ a sign language teacher declares in Antrobus’s moving debut. Exploring his early experience of deafness, Antrobus invites the reader to feel the frustration and emotional complexity of navigating through the world: ‘I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter.’ Language and communication become touchstones of the collection; poems like ‘Aunt Beryl Meets Castro’ evoke Jamaican patois (‘Listen listen, you know I/ met Castro in Jamaica in/ ’77 mi work with/ government under Manley’). Equally memorable is Antro-bus’s consideration of his embattled identity: ‘There is such a thing as a key confidently cut/ that accepts the locks it doesn’t fit.’ However, it’s his evocations of his late father, a Jamaican immigrant who battled alcoholism and faced British policemen ‘who didn’t believe he belonged/ unless they heard his English,/ which was smooth as some uptown roads,’ that gives the collection its heart. What might be gimmicky or sentimental—the poem ‘Thinking of Dad’s Dick,’ for instance—becomes moving and memorable: ‘He knew he wouldn’t live/ to see me grown… He had to give,/ while he could, the length of his life to me.’ In these pages, Antrobus’s evocative, musical honesty is unforgettable.”

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev: “Walton’s spectacular debut pulls off a polyphonic oral history of a fictional proto-Afro-punk performer and her white musical partner. The novel begins with the sensational origin story of unlikely duo Opal & Nev, described by magazine editor S. Sunny Curtis in 2017 as the ‘progenitors of dissidence and dissonance.’ After Opal Jewel arrives in New York City from Detroit in 1970, where she’d been an outcast for her radical politics, fashion, and musical style, she meets ‘goofy white English boy’ Nev Charles, a songwriter from Birmingham, at an open mic. Nev is impressed by her performance, and the two team up to produce a phenomenally successful sound. Their star quickly rises, but after a photo appears in 1971 showing Opal blanketed in a Confederate flag as Nev carries her away from a gig turned riot, their career flames out in controversy. The novel’s diverse group of voices are cobbled together by Curtis as she searches for the truth behind the iconic ‘picture of chaos.’ The story is also personal for Curtis—her father, a drummer, had been having an affair with Opal, and he was killed in the melee. The novel is bookended by an equally violent reunion that confirms a shocking secret, and Opal proves herself the champion of the ‘marginalized, bullied, discriminated against.’ Walton pumps up the volume with a fresh angle on systemic racism and freedom of expression. This is a firecracker.”

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Of Women and Salt: “Garcia’s dexterous debut chronicles the travails of a Cuban immigrant family. Carmen, a Cuban immigrant living in Miami, is worried about her daughter Jeanette’s addiction to drugs and alcohol. In 2014, during a moment of sobriety, Jeanette watches as her Salvadorian neighbor, Gloria, is detained by ICE while Gloria’s daughter, Ana, is away with a babysitter. After Jeanette takes in Ana, Garcia unfolds the stories of the two families in parallel narratives, shifting between Gloria awaiting deportation in a Texas detention center while Ana stays briefly with Jeanette and episodes set during the Cuban Independence Movement of the late 19th century, when Jeanette’s great-great-grandmother worked in Cuba at a cigar factory, and Carmen’s escape from Cuba 15 years after the revolution. Eventually, Jeanette’s story reveals her addiction may be her way of coping with the trauma of having been sexually assaulted as child. Throughout, Garcia illustrates the hard choices mothers make generation after generation to protect their children: ‘Motherhood: question mark, a constant calculation of what-if,’ muses Gloria. The jumps across time and place can occasionally dampen the various threads’ emotional impact, but by the end they form an impressive, tightly braided whole. This riveting account will please readers of sweeping multigenerational stories.”

Who Is Unthinkable? On Imbolo Mbue’s ‘How Beautiful We Were’

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1.
Fake news has never angered me on a visceral level. I don’t earnestly engage with conspiracists who fret about Satan worshippers or baby-eaters, for instance, and I have always found those who do amusing curiosities. For me, real anger has to imply a degree of sincerity and investment. Viscerally, I worry about how it is possible to possess the right knowledge without following through with the right actions.

It pesters me, for one, that I and every person I know agree with the scientific consensus that we are on track to log a two-degree temperature rise by 2050, which would herald “catastrophic” consequences. But few take this knowledge seriously. I’m not saying such a person doesn’t exist; that person is just weird and extraordinary enough to warrant his own ProPublica profile, and his profile reads more like a description of performance art taken too far than a considered ethical response to crisis. Dumpster diving for leftover food, practicing “humanure,” and driving a biodiesel converted car—the outlandish austerity of these practices make Peter Kalmus an archetypal American eccentric. But that view of him—eccentric!—defangs the righteousness of his undertaking. Kalmus has long ago given up any semblance of a “normal” life, and his wife is at the end of her rope. Who wouldn’t be, with a partner obsessively confronting everyone at every turn in all-caps “NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?” But maybe this is the kind of reckless abandon of social convention—or, conversely, the assumption of radical personal responsibility—that is demanded of us amidst systemic failure.

The pandemic has intensified my malaise regarding the irremediable gaps between the individual and the collective, knowledge and action. The absence of any coordinated response or consistent messaging has tinged daily decision-making for mundane tasks like buying groceries, sending kids to school, and seeing friends with streaks of nihilism. On some mornings, I think virtuously to myself of George Eliot’s line, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” I pat myself on the back for making unhistoric sacrifices for the sake of a greater good. But by the evening, as I drift to sleep, I dwell on how short life is, how it only belongs to me, and how I am therefore accountable only to living my best life for myself.

2.
In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh, whose genre-crossing novelistic work integrates elements of fable, science fiction, and memoir, asks why climate change persistently eludes our powers of comprehension. The most compelling essay in Ghosh’s tripartite investigation focuses on the conventions and limitations of literature. Why is climate change and its impacts on our lives, he asks, so resistant to representation in novels?

The archetypal literary fiction novel, Ghosh claims, relies on establishing a “sense of place.” To succeed in foregrounding its own particular human drama, the novel has to first delineate a discrete space and time. Historically, this logic mirrors assumptions accompanying the social station of an emergent bourgeoisie in Europe. The family unit flourishes and enters society when it has carefully secured the property lines of its own well-pruned estate. Novels, too, are meaningful so long as their events and relationships unfold within their temporally and spatially bound settings. Against this backdrop, the “individual moral adventure,” which John Updike distinguished as the defining characteristic of the novel, takes place.

To illustrate the historical constraints of the novel, consider how uniquely absurd the following rewrites of classic works would be. A violent cyclone upstages the weddings at the end of Pride and Prejudice! A tornado destroys the March family home in Little Women! Believable? Not at all. These novels are rich and capacious enough to entertain deception and romantic betrayal, illness and even (offstage) war—but introducing the nonhuman agency of weather events to their plots would exile these books to the science fiction shelves.

Ghosh’s treatise diagnoses the symptoms of a pervasive cultural inability to grasp climate change in literary expression. Now, he poses, can the novel be remade? Can it be refashioned to tell stories about our collective predicament in the temporal horizon of the present rather than the future, the everyday rather than the fantastical? Or will the chasm widen between the literary mainstream and science fiction; between mundane life set in this world in the present, and supernatural events set in a fundamentally other world in the distant future?

Ghosh’s questions resonate with the frustrations I often have with myself these days. How long can I sustain the fiction of life as usual when the scientific facts scream emergency? Are readers and writers complicit with a delusion—indeed, a “great derangement”—of epic proportions? And why is our “collective predicament” so recalcitrantly inconceivable?

3.
Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, which follows her PEN/Faulkner winning debut Behold the Dreamers, casts doubt on the exasperating enterprise of crystallizing a “collective” challenge in climate change.

“We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known?” Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were, begins with these remorseful words, narrated in first-person plural. Her elegiac, post-apocalyptic narrative voice quickly brings into focus a standoff between representatives of Pexton—a multinational oil conglomerate that is polluting the air, water, and land of Kosawa—and villagers, who are dying from associated diseases. The villagers demand answers; Pexton officials tell them to carry on with their lives. Pexton smiles and tells them there is nothing to worry about.

For years, the villagers have attended these meetings to no avail. They go because they are required to, not because they want to. They silently curse the Pexton officials—their children are dying!—but they accept that they are powerless. This longstanding gridlock is finally dispelled when Konga, the village madman, steals the Pexton driver’s keys one evening. This impetuous action, committed by Kosawa’s inhabitant of lowest rank, should be easily reversible, except village custom dictates that Konga is untouchable. As such, there is no simple solution to ensure the safe return of the Pexton officials back to the capital city. As the situation rapidly escalates, Kosawa’s leaders are cornered into holding the Pexton officials hostage.

In How Beautiful We Were, the usage of the first-person plural contains none of the frivolity or falseness of contemporary invocations of solidarity among millennials or people living under late-capitalism—solidarities which only exist in the vaguest of ways. Here, the “us” is defined in opposition to “them”: governors in the capital and Pexton employees, who live in brick houses furnished with modern appliances.

This voice of solidarity also excludes Konga, who the narrator claims “had no awareness of our suffering and lived without fears of what was and what was to come.” Konga, the village idiot, is dismissed, mocked, and reviled by the villagers. Mbue restores suspicion to the first-person plural, reminding readers that any people who speak with one voice have repressed and excluded other voices.

What, then, is being repressed and excluded? For one, behavior that challenges the status quo—a status quo that is killing the villagers. While the villagers know that Pexton is the proximate cause for their maladies, they refuse to follow this knowledge to its logical consequence. Afraid to provoke a violent response from Pexton and the government—who are in cahoots—villagers fret about the uncanny illnesses afflicting their youth, but avoid looking apocalypse squarely in the eye. They suppress their own grief and anger, feeling “helpless.”

All of this leaves them with just a lamenting narrator, who has no recourse decades later but to repeat, “We should have known.”

4.
On the other hand, the madman’s unexpected action sets off a chain reaction. For the first time in a long time, nothing can be taken for granted. The first-person plural voice fragments, besieged with internal questioning and conflict:
“How can you be so stupid as to think we have any chance? Konga has shown us we stand every chance. Konga is a madman. Perhaps madness is what we all need. How can you say such a thing? We were once a brave people, the blood of the leopard flows within us—when did we lose sight of that? We’ll be dead tomorrow—is that what you want?”
Presented with an opportunity to gain the upper hand in their confrontation with Pexton, the village leaders attempt to use their hostages as a bargaining chip. The villagers, for once, are optimistic. The tables have temporarily turned.

Their gambit is a risky one. And, eventually, it succeeds. Kosawa’s plight becomes the subject of journalistic reporting, fueling outrage overseas and throwing Pexton’s shady practices into the spotlight. But all of this is won at a heavy cost: a bloody massacre takes place, and several villagers, including children, are gunned down by soldiers in broad daylight. For a hint of progress, the villagers exchange unimaginable tragedy. This episode presages the asymmetric and unjust sacrifices Kosawa villagers make to have even the smallest chance at living healthfully on their land.

It also recalls a painful conversation between a husband and a wife in Kosawa the evening before he leaves to confront government men in the capital and disappears forever. The wife implores him not to go, knowing that the endeavor is doomed to failure and entails significant personal risk. The husband responds curtly, “I don’t understand: how can you not think about the future?” He continues, “You want me to not fight for my children’s future because you’re afraid.”

In this confrontation, both husband and wife are correct in their knowledge. She is right in her apprehension that he will be persecuted and destroyed in his search for the truth. And he is right that they will all die if nothing is done. She is driven by her familial self-preservation instinct, and he is moved to action by witnessing his own son’s bout of illness (from which he has made an unlikely recovery). Ultimately, she is left to suffer as a widow who cannot even get basic answers on whether and how he has died.

5.
The heroine of How Beautiful We Were is Thula, the daughter of the disappeared father. A studious and intelligent child, she receives an unprecedented opportunity to study in New York. Returning to Kosawa as a revolutionary with global sensibilities, she travels from town to town to galvanize a national, anti-colonial movement, organizing joy-filled Liberation Day protests to celebrate power and strength among her people. Fully dedicated to her political vision, she refuses to marry and remains childless. Her friends and family look askance at her choice, though she remains widely admired.

After supporting his sister Thula for years, Juba recognizes that he does not have it in him to dedicate his life to a revolutionary cause that is not his own. “Our nation was decaying with us inside it, all one could do was abscond with whatever one could,” he relates. He rationalizes his decision by quoting his wife, who frequently says, “we’re only taking what’s ours; we have the right to do so.” This turning point is marked by Juba’s newly defined scope of solidarity, which contracts from his countrymen to his new family. When he invokes the first-person plural—who “we” are and what is “ours”—he no longer refers to his nation Kosawa or even his family of birth; he has chosen a new tribe.

Thereafter, Juba purchases houses, cars, and luxury clothes for himself and his in-laws. He is not the only one from Kosawa to take a government job and betray the revolution—in fact, many people his age do. It is significant, of course, that Kosawa’s descendants now drive cars fueled by the decimation of their ancestral land.

By the end of the novel, the elders have scattered and Kosawa has been fully taken over by Pexton. These elders, some of the last who have lived the majority of their lives in Kosawa, can only tell their grandchildren stories of what once was. This intergenerational novel thus ends where Kosawa’s lineage ends: Kosawa may have grandchildren by blood, but not by heart and soul. The memories of Kosawa will soon die out.

6.
The grim conclusion to How Beautiful We Were is Kosawa’s extinction. Apocalypse, Mbue seems to say, is not mysterious, unimaginable, or unthinkable. It has been confronted many times before, by many different communities and people, and it will be confronted many times to come.

Today, it is common for artists and writers to harp about a widespread cultural failure to think in collectives. This line of thinking, modeled well by Ghosh, goes: if only we could think in aggregates, and reflect that consciousness in our expressive forms, then we would be better equipped to tackle climate change. Mbue’s novel follows in a long tradition of works that toy with collective perspectives and nonhuman agencies. The ambitiousness of Mbue’s four-decade, polyvocal epic yields some shortcomings: the facts of the narrative become redundant at times, and the repeated rehearsals of sentimentality do not always feel meaningfully distinct between the various narrators.

Still, what kind of clarity can Mbue’s storytelling—encompassing an intergenerational time horizon and occasionally a first-person plural voice—give us? What is gained when collective thinking and feeling is taken seriously?

My interpretation flouts the premise of these questions, and it is that collective subjectivities guarantee nothing. Until the apocalypse consumes us whole, it is possible, a survival mechanism even, to adapt by redefining our affinities and solidarities. By doing so, the end—for “us”—might be evaded for a little longer.

In How Beautiful We Were, the fault for Kosawa’s evisceration lies entirely and unforgivably with Pexton, systems of extractive greed, and neocolonialism. Nevertheless, this fact makes it no less dissonant when the children of Kosawa callously dismiss their parents’ deeply felt concerns about who is harmed by the oil they use. Kosawa’s last generation grieves: “It marvels us how much suffering we bore, our parents bore, our ancestors bore, so our children could own cars and forget Kosawa… One day, we know, our world and our ways will vanish in totality.”

When “the collective” is alluded to in discussions about climate change, it is assumed that the word points to humanity as a whole. Can this assumption be taken for granted? Can it be said that the consequences of climate change are unimaginable when they are already taking their toll in communities right now?

By definition, a collective is nothing more than a number of people loosely formed into a group. I cynically find a Darwinist hellscape of social fragmentation eminently imaginable: the wealthy will build higher walls to escape the coming ravages of climate change, and the dispossessed will falter and perish. In some ways, this reality is already underway. In this gradually arriving dystopia, collectives will tend toward entropy, atomizing until even the futures of their children, grandchildren, and the elderly are sacrificed as unavoidable collateral damage.

7.
I am reminded of a lecture I heard during college. Most memorable was how my professor insisted on calling various acts of 20th-century political resistance “inhuman.” Gandhi’s non-violence, Nelson Mandela’s prison organizing, Martin Luther King’s message of love—he argued that these responses to oppression were so counter to what could be expected from humans that they were inhuman feats. I had only ever heard that word used in a derogatory sense, and was surprised to hear it in this context. What these political heroes—and so many unrecognized people—did was indeed extraordinary, but did it defy human nature?

The conclusion to Mbue’s novel does little to console the reader, but Thula’s character refutes the notion that cataclysm is fated for humanity. Intrinsic to being human is the germ of the inhuman, and it is the inhuman—rather than the clouded ideas of a natural and universal collective—that may need to be summoned today.

Bonus Links:
Dissidents, Revolutionaries, and Protestors: On Imbolo Mbue
A Year in Reading: Imbolo Mbue

For the Relief of Unbearable Bookstores

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I’ve reached the point in life where my relationship with bookstores is—how to put this?—well, it’s complicated. I love the idea of bookstores. I smile when I see their bright windows on a block. I talk about a new bookshop like normal people talk about newborns. And after the global pandemic loosens its grip on New York, I know one of the first things I’ll do is visit a bookstore in my neighborhood. In my imagination, this means spending a long lazy afternoon browsing shelves and flipping the pages of dozens of new books. There’s just one problem: I long ago ceased to enjoy bookstores. Even before the pandemic, I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside one without wanting to leave; no, without wanting to flee, shoulders hunched, like a child caught trespassing.
I once burned for bookstores. And not just because I thought the right books made me look smart, either. This was a love affair that began before I knew pretension. The very first bookstore that I loved as a boy was a mall bookstore. Its name, Abbey Road Books, made no sense to me because it was located on Gull Road, not Abbey Road. The mall would be gone long before I got the Beatles reference.
Abbey Road Books was not large but it was big enough for a guileless boy: a rack near the cash register held comic books. A half dozen long rows running front to back offered popular paperbacks and—I assume—serious literary fiction. I never really looked. I was too busy with the Garfield collections, the Dragonriders of Pern fantasies or the sci-fi pulp. This was where I found my first favorite novel, Laura J. Mixon’s Astro Pilots, a YA book about a teenager whose revenge on a bully is complicated by the temporal effect of traveling at light speed. Pure nerd bliss.
Years of browsing and buying books freely has produced what you would expect: my home is a book orphanage, and the unread books are almost as numerous as the read ones. Based on a recent roll call, a quarter of the books on the shelves are critically praised titles I have not yet read. Let the Great World Spin. White Teeth. The Wings of the Dove.
In the pre-pandemic era, there were six book shops within the lunchtime walking radius of my office near Union Square. The Strand, Alabaster Books, Three Lives, McNally Jackson, Housingworks, and Barnes & Noble. All of the shops except Alabaster (which was smaller than a studio apartment) had display tables at the store entrance. The intention of a bookstore display table is noble; the effect is, for me, pernicious. From the get go, I am reminded of how many unread books exist and how many new unread books are added to that list daily. All the tables and all the books take on an undifferentiated, daunting sheen. You can judge a book by its cover but what you’re judging is sometimes hard to say. To Keep the Sun Alive? House of Stone? Great book covers, lovely fonts, and crackerjack titles; how do you pick between them? The blurb on every other book promises it is “Like nothing you’ve read before.” Or “More knife than novel.” I want to read the work of this “rising star of Arab fiction,” but I also want to read a dozen others, and in the end, overwhelmed by choice, I choose to flee.
Pablo Neruda once wrote that the smell of barber shops made him sob. The smell of fresh book bindings makes me feel like a phony. I am overwhelmed by all the books I have not read, won’t read. How is it that I was ever able to bear this feeling? Why can’t I stand in front of the French Literature section, picking up and putting down books as insouciantly as the scruffy dude with the man bun and the serious face? What has gone wrong in me? Sometimes, at Three Lives, I worried the friendly clerk truing up novels in stacks near the door would stop me one day and say, gently, “I see you here often, dear; is there something specific you need?”
The global Covid pandemic put an abrupt end to this ongoing bookstore angst, for a time. Overnight, bookstores became more theoretical than real. I shifted to curbside pick up for drinks and dinners, and I pivoted to ordering books over the phone from local stores. The first time that I picked up a book purchase curbside was in the Early Covid Era, and I doused all the brand new books with rubbing alcohol before I stowed them in the trunk for a three-day quarantine. Just to be safe. By summer, I was less anxious about touching books; at a pick-up window for a bookstore in Connecticut, I waited while inside a bookstore employee searched for the title I wanted among all the books in their cells. One day, I thought, one day we’ll all be able to go inside again. Won’t that be something?
I want to believe that everything will be different when we turn life back on. I want to believe a year apart from bookstores has changed me. I want to believe I have re-learned how to be casual, how to relax, how to bathe in the bliss of booksellers. I want to believe. But here’s the truth: rather than rewire me for patience, a year at home has probably made me even less able to downshift and enjoy a bookstore properly. I spend more hours than ever each day digging into the larder of my smartphone for the fatty byproducts of the Internet. Social distancing for months has increased the hours spent as a parent mediating fights, insisting on chores, refereeing screen time. Given my jumpy, angsty, barely-nuanced attention span, does anyone really think I’m capable of slipping with ease into the heady trance that is necessary to enjoy an afternoon among books?
Yet, I am too old to change. I know what is coming, in the summer of our post-Covid dreams, when masks are passé and stores no longer post occupancy limits. I will return to bookstores. I won’t be able to resist giving them another chance. And another. And another. But I’m pretty sure where all this will end up. I’ll be back on the sidewalk again within minutes.
The unforgivable sin of bookstores is this: so many of the books that they offer are physical reminders of passing time. Here are the Kazuo Ishiguros I read while in my fresh-faced 20s. Here are the Joan Didions of my 30s. Here are the Tracy Kidders I discovered after my kids were born. A visit to any kind of bookstore will eventually make me jealous for the younger version of me, the person who was unshaped, unaccountable, unknown. Both the books that I have read and not read all remind me that what I am is not what I was; and they point out to me that for all the work of living that I have done, there remains an impossible amount of work that I have not and cannot do. I cannot change course and pursue a life of ornithology. I am no longer a penniless apprentice writing his first novel. I cannot sell everything and live on an arctic freighter. I cannot be what I am not, and by definition what I am not remains so much larger than what I am.
But there is hope. There has to be. Sometimes, a bookstore visit can still be just right. In the last weeks before the pandemic closed all the bookstores in Manhattan, I stopped by Book Culture, a book shop that was once known—in my apprentice writer heyday—as Labyrinth Books, an unapologetically highbrow bookshop. Here is the headline of a Times review lauding the shop shortly after it opened in 1997: “No Krantz, Koontz or coffee bars.” I was here often as a graduate student trying to write a novel in the vein of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. The tin soldier rows of books were like a barracks of like-minded zealots. This was where I jealously flipped through debut short story collections like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and swore I could do better. (Reader: I could not.)
On this visit half a lifetime later, I flipped through a book I recently saw lionized on Twitter. Nice. One more novel I should be reading, but wasn’t. I almost left right then, but then I saw Draft No. 4, a John McPhee book on writing, and I decided, well, let me look inside that one. I scanned the first page. My insides went calm. I was like a parched man cutting open a spindly cactus and finding watery relief. I skipped to the back, read more words that struck me as perfect, and true: “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky,” McPhee writes, “when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.” I closed the book, realizing that I would buy it, damn the torpedoes and all the unread books waiting at home.
I brought the McPhee book to the register. A girl with dirty blond hair and a tired, guarded look was handling sales.
“Are you a member of our book club?”
“I’m sure that I was once,” I said. There was no way for her to hear the ironic undertone.
She asked for my first and last name. I told her. She typed, furrowed her brow. “Nope,” she said. “You want to join? It’s quick.”
Of course, I had been forgotten. Emptiness began to swell inside. Then, a thought: “Did you put a space,” I said, “between Van and Dyke?”
She sighed, hit the delete key lightly, then enter, and her eyes brightened. “There you are,” she said, as if she had just learned I was her cousin twice removed. They knew me. I was one of the remembered ones. I still belonged. This made me so happy that now, in retrospect, it makes me sad.
Bonus Link:
A History of Love (of Bookstores)
Image Credit: Piqsels.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lee, Tsumura, McCadden, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Andrea Lee, Kikuko Tsumura, Alice Zeniter, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Red Island House by Andrea Lee

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red Island House: “Lee’s seductive novel (her first in 15 years, after Lost Hearts in Italy) chronicles the life of Shay Gilliam, a Black American woman married to an Italian man. Her husband, Senna, builds the couple a vacation property and pension in northwestern Madagascar. It takes a while for Shay to adjust during visits from Italy, where Shay teaches literature, but she befriends head housekeeper Bertine, whom Shay enlists to help her get rid of loud, racist Kristos, the house manager. As the decades pass, the couple raises children and continues to visit. Meanwhile, various episodes in Madagascar occupy Shay, including a feud between a volatile bar owner and an ostentatious business rival who appears to be ‘living out some Happy Valley colonial fantasy.’ (One of the two ends up dead.) Shay also has an unsettling encounter while searching for a ‘sacred tree,’ and develops a ‘strange intimacy’ with the skipper of the couple’s decrepit catamaran. These experiences lead Shay to confront ideas about race, class, and colonialism. If the plotting is episodic, the writing is vivid: ‘the first caress of tropical air’ is ‘like an infant’s hand on the face,’ and Shay’s fond reflections on Bertine are especially moving. Things ebb and flow, but the overall impact is quietly powerful.”
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (translated by Polly Barton)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job: “Tsumura’s sharp English-language debut follows a woman’s search for fulfillment in an all-consuming late-capitalist Japan. The unnamed narrator suffers career burnout at 36 and abandons her job (she’s coy until the end about the details). When her unemployment insurance runs out, she reenters the workforce, seeking a position ‘that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not.’ What follows is a series of increasingly strange and occasionally surreal temporary gigs. In one, she monitors hours of video footage from surveillance cameras placed in an author’s house and begins to find her preferences and identity merging with his; in another, she writes copy for voice advertisements on buses, but the businesses she’s writing for mysteriously appear and disappear. Though she attempts to maintain emotional distance from her work, the narrator is drawn into a consuming series of workplace situations; while working on a maintenance crew for a national park, she encounters a man living in the woods who succumbed to a similar burnout. Tsumura’s rendering of a millennial besieged by anxious overthinking and coping through deadpan humor and sarcasm rings true. As the monotonous and fantastic collide, Tsumura shows that meaning and real intrigue can be found in the unlikeliest of places.”
Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Raft of Stars: “Though set in 1994, the wilderness odyssey that shapes Graff’s rewarding coming-of-age debut has a timeless, archetypal resonance. After the death of Fischer ‘Fish’ Branson’s father, Fish spends summers with his grandfather Teddy in tiny Claypot, Wis. His best friend there is Dale ‘Bread’ Breadwin, whose dad, Jack, is an abusive drunk. After Fish impulsively shoots Jack in an attempt to end Bread’s suffering, the two 10-year-olds mistakenly assume he is dead. They pilfer supplies, leave a note for Teddy, and hide in the dense woods that border the town while they improvise a raft to flee Claypot by river. Teddy and the town sheriff, Cal, a burned-out former cop from Texas, look for them on horseback, while Fish’s fiercely spiritual mom mounts a search by canoe with a young woman who works at a gas station and shares with Cal an unspoken attraction. By the time these six converge at a perilous waterfall, each has come to know more about themselves and each other. Though the resolution yields few surprises, Graff depicts the harsh Northwoods setting and his misfit characters’ inner lives with equal skill. The dynamic quest narrative offers plenty of rich moments.”
My Friend Natalia by Laura Lindstedt (translated by David Hackston)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about My Friend Natalia: “Lindstedt makes her English-language debut with an uneven transgressive novel chronicling the relationship between an unnamed psychologist—whose gender Lindstedt leaves unspecified—and their patient. The psychologist narrates the story as a dishy, somewhat unhinged case study, beginning with graphic designer Natalia coming to them for help with obsessive sexual thoughts. After the first session, the psychologist realizes Natalia, who makes erudite, provocative digressions on cultural references, is perfect for the psychologist to practice the method they defended for their PhD, designed to let patients ‘bounce and rebound’ through free association. Divided into weekly appointments, the chapters chronicle an intensifying mental and sexual power struggle between psychologist and patient, such as Natalia’s determination to keep time in the sessions with an alarm clock, and to bare her sexual prowess by sharing her sex tapes. Throughout the novel, Natalia riffs on Sartre, Beauvoir, and others, baiting the psychologist with sexually charged critiques of patriarchal philosophy (‘Sartre wrote: The female organ is like all other holes, a plea for existence’). Though often humorous, some of the arch prose falls flat (‘The distance between her mouth and eyes was greater than scientifically proven patterns of beauty would allow’). Still, fans of subversive stories of psychoanalysis may want to take a look.”
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter (translated by Frank Wynne)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Art of Losing: “In Zeniter’s ruminative latest (after Take This Man), a French Algerian woman unearths her shrouded family history and reckons with the question of what constitutes a homeland. Ali, a veteran of the WWII French auxiliary, has built a sizable olive oil business in Algeria, but flees for France with his family after Algeria wins its independence. Ali’s eldest son, Hamid, assimilates into French culture and distances himself from his family, while Naima, Hamid’s art historian daughter, who endures bigotry after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other acts of terrorism, delves headlong into research on Algeria in preparation for an art exhibit by expatriate Algerian artist Lalla Fatma N’Soumer. During their interviews, she struggles to grasp the stories Lalla tells her about Algeria while piecing together an understanding of her own identity, given that Hamid had refused to take her to Algeria as a child. A trip to a museum in Tizi Ouzi provides cover for a search for information about Ali, but on the way she worries how she’ll be treated as a descendent of French allies. Zeniter skillfully demonstrates the impact of colonialism on family, country, and the historical archive. With nuance and grace, this meditative novel adds to the understanding of a complex, uncomfortable era of French history.”
Also on shelves this week: Peach State by Adrienne Su and American Wake by Kerrin McCadden.