Here’s a picture of the books I’ve been reading lately:
On Flowers by Amy Merrick
See the flowers behind the book about flowers? I made that bouquet myself, which isn’t a thing I normally do. But they were inspired by the extremely inspiring bottom book, On Flowers, by Amy Merrick. This is a coffee table book that I got for work, kind of as research for a related project, and instantly I was motivated to know everything there is to know about flowers (from a creativity perspective more than a scientific one).
One favorite bit is when the author, a florist, is commissioned to create arrangements for an opening at the Met for a show about punk fashion. She provides bouquets of dead flowers (“It was a laugh to explain to the client that dead flowers cost no less than fresh ones, as the only way to have dead flowers is to buy them and let time cast its spell”). This extremely beautiful book is an invocation to all creative thinking, not just flowers (but flowers too, big time).
(Note that if you buy some of the books from these links, we’ll receive a small commission with which we pay our writers.)
Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson
I finished Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson when I was on vacation a couple weeks ago. It’s a shoo-in for the book of the year, I think. Davidson’s writing style is hard and angular, studied, and a little oblique so that I found myself missing an important detail in a paragraph and having to go back to reread. Several times I would reread a paragraph, catch the meaning, then go back and read it again, aloud, to catch the glistening prose I’d skipped over. The novel is about loggers in the redwoods, and it takes place in the late 70s, so there are a lot of amusing details from that era that I’d forgotten about, like how everyone used to walk on each other’s back as a way to relieve pain. Those were the days.
But it’s not a fun novel, really. It’s tense and gut wrenching, and it’s an important one because it shows how easily we sacrifice our health and the environment for commerce. There are parallels to the current debates about vaccinations in the book, as so many characters fight against science since their livelihoods are threatened by it. And at the end I did get a little weepy.
Years ago, back in the fifties, when Virgil Sanderson had hired the company’s first sprayer—the new chemicals kept the brush down, made it faster and cheaper to log—the pilot had let Rich ride along. He’d barely fit in the tin-can plane, knees pressed to rattling metal. They’d lifted off from the mill road, bottom falling out of Rich’s stomach. The pilot had followed the coastline, turning inland at Diving Board Rock. It was Rich’s first and only bird’s-eye view of his life: the small green house with its white shutters set back on the bluff at the foot of Bald Hill, the cedar-shingle tank shed. The plane’s engine noise buzzed inside his chest, a hundred McCulloch chainsaws revving at once. They’d flown over 24-7 Ridge, the big tree herself lit by an errant ray of sun, glowing orange, bright as a torch, and, for an instant, Rich had caught a glimmer of the inholding’s potential—an island of private land in a sea of company forest. They’d flown over the dark waves of big pumpkins in Damnation Grove—redwoods older than the United States of America, saplings when Christ was born. Then came the patchwork of clear-cuts, like mange on a dog, timber felled and bucked and debarked, trucked to the mill, sawed into lumber, sent off to the kilns to be dried. The pilot had flipped a switch and spray had drifted out behind them in a long pennant—taste of chlorine, whiff of diesel—Rich’s heart soaring.Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson
The Most Fun Thing by Kyle Beachy
I saw a mention somewhere about how some young skateboarders picked up The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life by Kyle Beachy and expected that either 1) the book would be bad, or 2) the author would be a bad skater, and were surprised they were wrong on both counts; the memoir-in-essays is smart and meaningful, and Kyle Beachy can roll around with abandon. Personally, I was a big skater till I was 12, loved my Sims Staab and bedecked it with patterns of florescent green grip tape. But then skating became a subculture, I think—and my parents wouldn’t buy me any Skidz—and I couldn’t ollie anyway—so I gave it up. Beachy’s book is much more serious than that anecdote, and deals with bigger life issues (to whit, this harrowing selection that’s prompted by his own thoughts on when he might no longer skate) (seriously, though, read it). But the author of these essays would certainly recognize the pressures in that moment from my youth. Beachy is able to sit on a bench and derive as much meaning from the concrete around him.
I’m still reading this book—I’m stretching it out because I want to leave it around the house for visitors to discover and flip through. It’s a conversation starter. Heck, I don’t even need to write about it anymore. Just listen to this guy:
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
I loved reading Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, and since finishing it I have loved talking about it whenever I can. Every day I’ll be doing something and part of the book will occur to me—like this morning I was removing the annoying pull tab from the orange juice container and I remembered Eileen’s screed against how bad life is in our modern era, aesthetically speaking, and then I remembered how Alice rebutted that perspective in her emailed reply. That’s a bad example; I’ve had much more interesting thoughts and ideas about the book.
Better reviews of this book abound—it’s a legit sensation—but in a nutshell it is about two women in their late 20s struggling to find connection. Ooh la la. But this book is a masterpiece, even better than Rooney’s first two novels. It’s simple on one level, and on another level it’s deep and rich and filled with a-ha moments. I think it’s the rare book that is totally immersive for writers and brainiacs who want to understand how art works in a consumerist world, and also totally engaging for people who don’t care about that at all, but just want a good ride.
Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
I’m reading Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy right now. It’s another novel that’s preoccupied with the environment. I am going to be a better global citizen because of books like this. I read the first handful of pages and thought, “Hey, I’m enjoying this novel but it has a kind of crappy title—what does the NY Times say about it,” and I looked up their review. Their review was not quite positive, so then I thought, “Aw gee, I might not like this book after all”—but I can’t stop reading it.
Now I’m halfway through and feeling the Times reviewer was wrong—the book is thoroughly satisfying, and (IMHO) offers a genuine sense of place in its Scottish setting. McConaghy seamlessly packs in a ton of story, from Inti Flynn’s background with her strange family and unique neurological disorder, to her current challenges in a society that has disdain for everything she stands for. She reminds me of my favorite character from The Overstory, Patty Westerford, the scientist who says the best thing humans can do to protect the environment is … well, die.
Still, as the Times mentions, there are some awkward moments in the book. For example, this passage, spoken by Duncan, the local sheriff, in regard to his decision not to pursue a violently abusive husband:
“I’m not minimizing. It’s just that if you paint a picture of him as a monster then you make him mythical, but men who hurt women are just men. They’re all of us. Too fucking many of us and all too human. And the women they hurt aren’t passive victims, or Freud’s masochists who like to be punished either. They’re all women, and all they’re doing, minute by minute, is strategizing how best to survive the man they loved, and that’s not a thing anyone should have to do.”Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
Too true, too awful, and well, too well said coming from an aw shucks lawman. This is a great point to understand (and Inti’s response is to think, “I keep underestimating him”), but it feels hemmed into the novel, out of place as a thesis spoken in a rough rural bar. In a later conversation, when Duncan is interviewing Inti about a disappearance in the town, they have this edifying sidebar. Inti says,
“… They care more about farming and hunting than saving trees.”
“Why shouldn’t they?”
“Because this planet doesn’t belong to them,” I snap. “We aren’t entitled to it, we aren’t owed.”
He is quiet a moment, studying me. “Working the land is as tough a job as they come.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t.”
“You ever wonder why conservationists tend to come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds? They’ve got money. They don’t have to rely on the land to survive, they aren’t scraping by, one day to the next.”
“I understand that the impact of conservation has not fallen equally on rural and urban shoulders, and that we need to share the burden of change equitably,” I say …Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
Here again, this is a passage full of complexity and meaning that I am glad to stumble over. I’m better for thinking about it, even if it does make the character and story subservient to the novel’s mission statement. After all, the writing is brisk, the characters intriguing (even the flat and unlikable ones). The mystery works as well as the message.
And about that title, I’m thinking about it differently now. I hope it’s not prophetic. I hope we never say, “Once there were wolves.”
Helen or My Hunger by Gale Marie Thompson
I’m peripherally aware of who H.D. is, I’ve heard the story of Helen of Troy—and both of these people are key to this heady poetry book, Helen or My Hunger by Gale Marie Thompson. It’s a long poem, similar to Anne Carson’s classical work, and like reading Carson, there’s plenty to enjoy even if you’re not an antiquities scholar. So I stuck with it— tore through it really—because Thompson has such a sure and steady hand.
Just reading the first few pages assured me of how accomplished the poetry is, and reading the blurbs on the back cover offered all I need to know until the light shined through and the dense lines make a new kind of sense. Lynn Melnick notes that the book “explores notions of beauty and the body” while Danielle Pafunda highlights a key line from the speaker, about pain. From there, the poem uncovers itself. The first page says, “I am asking this of you. To see things out of order.” So when Greek words and concepts that I’m unfamiliar with appear, I know that Thompson is going to explain them to me in time, and she does, easily, and then the poem opens up for me.
I’m reminded of the kind of bodily writing that Julia Kristeva talks about, something that operates outside of the standard way we express ourselves. To get to be near that language for a while is a privilege. (This point reminds me that there is a character in Once There Were Wolves, Inti’s sister Aggie, who after some trauma primarily speaks with her body, literally. Another intertextual thread for me to pull.)
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
I listened to The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah (via Scribd, a $10 book/audiobook/magazine subscription that I find so worth it), so it took me forever, or a month, to get through the story. But after the first chapter I recommended it to my wife thinking she’d love Elsa, the protagonist, because she’s a person who does everything right while being thwarted by an environment that doesn’t appreciate her (Elsa, not my wife, who is much appreciated). And Amy plowed through the ebook in a couple days. It’s that kind of page-turning experience, just like Hannah’s last book, The Great Alone. (I always tell people I disliked that book but the fact that I read the whole thing says something.)
When I finally did finish the audiobook, which is about Elsa’s efforts to lead her family to some kind of health and safety during the Great Depression, I was surprised by the daring ending. Whatever marks I checked off against Kristin Hannah after her last novel, I restore to her and more for The Four Winds. It’s engrossing, and it vividly portrays the dust bowl and an era in American history that I now realize need to learn more about. (Thankfully, Hannah provides a further reading list on her website.)
The biggest takeaway from the book, for me, is how cruel the “haves” were to the “have nots.” People with stable homes not only didn’t actively try to help the others in their community—they worked against them in disturbing ways. It’s almost unbelievable that people could treat each other as bad as, say, the schoolteachers in California treated the migrants. But when I’ve raised this point, it’s awfully easy for Amy to come up with parallels from our current news cycle that prove how, unfortunately, Kristin Hannah’s storyline is not far off.
Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be by Nichole Perkins
I haven’t started it yet, but I love Nichole Perkins’s amazing Twitter and all her incisive, sexy commentary on pop culture, so I’m eager to read Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be. This book is her first collection of essays. From the description:
Combining her sharp wit, stellar pop culture sensibility, and trademark spirited storytelling, Nichole boldly tackles the damage done to women, especially Black women, by society’s failure to confront the myths and misogyny at its heart, and her efforts to stop the various cycles that limit confidence within herself. By using her own life and loves as a unique vantage point, Nichole humorously and powerfully illuminates how to take the best pop culture has to offer and discard the harmful bits, offering a mirror into our own lives.
Also check out Nichole’s book from Publishing Genius, Lilith, But Dark, which as far as poetry goes, is a bit essayistic and like a memoir itself.
Trial in the Woods by Stephanie Barber
Stephanie Barber’s new book, Trial in the Woods, is a farcical examination of how our principles of justice would look if we pinned them on animals. It’s a lot of fun, chaotic, and very rewarding. And though it’s a story entirely made up of woodland animals, certainly it fits into the theme common to all these books—how does human behavior influence the environment and our larger world. I interviewed Stephanie Barber about it for The Art of Anyone, here. In it, she refers to “this ineffable awareness of being, this being completely dumbfounded by the incomprehensibility of being alive,” and I wonder if that dumbfoundedness is the condition of being human that pervades so much of what I’m reading lately, the condition that allows us to neglect each other and the environment so constantly?