I’ve been reading voraciously this summer but have definitely not been keeping up with reviews! I think that’s in large part due to the fact that I was teaching three classes and involved with two (now three – ha!) important and in-depth professional projects this summer. It’s unfortunate that I didn’t get any significant thoughts down on much of this summer’s reading, because I’ve been reading so many really incredible things. That said, I do want to at least share what I’ve read, with a brief note or two about each work. I’ll include my Goodreads rating, too, for whatever that’s worth.
Fire to Fire by Mark Doty: This 2008 collection (I thought it was more recent but am now realizing I’ve literally had this sitting on my shelves for twelve years!) is actually a kind of “greatest hits” plus ample selection of, at the time, new works. It gathers together the “best of” Doty’s previous seven poetry collections and adds his more recent uncollected pieces. What it proves is that Doty is one of America’s greatest contemporary poets and certainly a standout for gay poetry. I responded most to his poems about loss and about the painful but necessary act of moving forward. 5 out of 5.
You Get So Alone At Times that It Just Makes Sense by Charles Bukowski: Another poetry collection from another American master. It was interesting to read this immediately after the Doty collection. I was both surprised by its sensitivity and simultaneously reminded of Bukowski’s grit and candor, for which he was much admired. I had not read much Bukowski, besides a few random poems found online and his novel, Ham on Rye. Bukowski was more a poet than anything, though, so it was great to finally sit down with one of his intentional collections and to experience a span of his work in action. I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would, probably because I found it more intimate and sensitive than I imagined it would be. 4 out of 5.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas: Why didn’t I like this one? Honestly, this was such a weird experience. It read to me like a lampoon, but I’m not sure that was the intention. Maybe it’s because I recently read The Princess Bride and found it so hilarious, such an effective parody, that returning to the original genre of a type of Chivalric Romance just seemed, well, a bit absurd and unnecessary. I might also have found it a bit too glib for the serious kind of reading I had been doing this summer, otherwise, mostly relating to the Black Lives Matter movement and diversifying my reading, as well as a focus on poetry which, even when it’s fun, is serious work. Anyhow, it wasn’t all bad, of course; it’s a classic for a reason. I particularly appreciated how much depth some of the women characters received and there were some plot twists that I did not see coming. I don’t think I’d read this one again, though. Should I give Dumas another try? Count of Monte Cristo, maybe? On the plus side, this is another book completed for my Back to the Classics Challenge. 3 out of 5.
No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners by Noah Rasheta: Noah Rasheta is the host of Secular Buddhism, an interesting podcast that explores a different element of Buddhism or Buddhist living (or everyday living through a Buddhist lens). In this book, he lays out the fundamental principles of Buddhism and attaches each to contemporary, real life scenarios to help new practitioners understand the many ways that a Buddhist life manifests. I appreciated how clear and organized, and brief, this book is, as it meets its promise of being “for beginners.” It’s an excellent starting point that provides a road-map for how to proceed with more in-depth study of the various concepts and principles, and it offers a helpful bibliography at the end, too. I also very much appreciate Buddhist instruction from people who are living a contemporary American life, as that is a lifestyle that seems, generally speaking, antithetical. 4 out of 5.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: This is another I read for BLM and it was also on my list for Back to the Classics & the Classics Club. What a beautiful, sad, powerful first novel from another American master. I’ve been thinking about the three Morrison novels I’ve read–Beloved, Sula, and now The Bluest Eye–and trying to articulate what it is about Morrison that makes her work so impressive and so dangerous. In researching this one a little bit, I learned that Morrison was disappointed in herself for writing it the way she did. She admitted, later, that she had hedged a bit for white audiences, refusing to say exactly as much as she had intended, and in the way she intended to say it. I found this surprising because it’s such an interesting book, and damn good, and its intention seems clear enough to me. But then I do look ahead to Sula, and ahead again to Beloved, and I begin to see what she means. Over the course of her life and career, Morrison really cast off any regard for unintended audiences and focused specifically on the stories she needed to tell and the audiences she wanted to reach. Her masterpieces are then crafted out of the combination of supreme talent but also a sharp awareness of her particular rhetorical situation. The Bluest Eye hints at these, but doesn’t perhaps achieve the way Beloved does. Nevertheless, I’ve read that, for some readers, Bluest Eye changed them. Changed the way they saw the world. And I can absolutely appreciate why this would be so. 4 out of 5.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta: Wow, this was not what I expected! In the first place, it is a novel in verse. I also thought, for some reason, it was about the transgender experience, perhaps because I had read Felix Ever After not long before. The book’s description, though, says it best when it states, “Sometimes, we need to take charge, to stand up wearing pink feathers – to show ourselves to the world in bold colour.” That’s exactly what the story is about. The protagonist’s story unfolds in poetry. He deals with an absent father and with “non-boyish” desires. He likes pretty things and pretty colors, and he’s not sure why, as a young boy, he’s told that he can’t want the pink flamingo because it’s for girls. He’s not sure why he has to hide the barbie doll that he so cherishes, or pass it on to his sister. This one was really lovely and an excellent, positive addition to my BLM reading for the summer. It supplemented, and provided a needed break from, the non-fiction anti-racism reading. 4 out of 5.
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang.Somewhere amidst all the very heavy reading I was doing this summer, I apparently needed a break. That break was found in Jen Wang’s delightful graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker. The story is about a young man, a prince, who sometimes likes to dress in women’s clothes. He hears of a brilliant young dressmaker and hires her to be his own personal designer. The story is charming, delightful really, and fresh in the way it bends gender roles separate from sexuality. The art, too, is simply wonderful. The story has its ups and downs, of course, and nothing goes entirely smoothly, not even for a prince, but the ending is a dessert worth waiting for. What a gem this one is! 4 out of 5.
The Malevolent Volume by Justin Phillip Reed. Another excellent poetry collection by a gay black poet. This one speaks directly to the current movement and to the violence that has been perpetrated against black bodies for so long, too long. Reed uses a full arsenal in his exploration and call to arms, from mythology to modern cinema, from pop culture to classical poetic forms. At its heart, this is a critique of exploitation, an expose, and while it often looks outward at the populations of marginalized people, it is also personal, intimate, and revolutionary. Reed’s style of free verse is deeply informed by structure, which is exactly something I’ve been trying to explain to my students for years. His poems are always in conversation with other poems, other poets. This will become a model of how it is done. 4 out of 5.
Thank you for reading Rapid Reviews, Part 1, which contains my brief thoughts on eight summer reads; Part 2 will come soon and will include brief thoughts on another eight reads from this summer. (And I’m also reading three more books right now, so those will come, well, someday!)