February turned out to be another superb reading month. Despite being just 28 days long, I managed to read 11 books, broken down as follows: one history; one biography; one autobiography; one on poetry; two adult novels; one young adult novel; and four poetry collections. So, let’s break these into their genres and tackle them very briefly, but with true intent to express what we mean.
Each book will receive a line or two of description or commentary, in hopes that brevity will offet a large set of texts. We’ll take the texts one at a time from within their genre group, say a line or two, and end with The Goodreads Review. Here we go!
Nina Simone: I Put a Spell on You. One can learn some about a life when, after it has lived, the life decides to put the details down; or perhaps they were compiling and recording all along. I Put a Spell On You is a transitional bildungsroman told by a young Black girl, Eunice, who would become Nina. Her book covers it all, dark spots and light ones too. She doesn’t deny that she was hard to work with, but claims she told audiences and event mangers what to expect. Nina never wanted to be a singer; she wanted to be the best Black classical pianist whoever was. I know she never received that title formally, but I do wonder if she achieved it. I’d wager on it, in fact. Ms. Simone lived a harsh life, suffered a great deal, and much of that was out of control. She was also a musical genius, awakened to political activism, and spoke the voice of the Civil Rights revolution multiple times, including with “Mississippi G-ddamn!” and “Young, Gifted, and Black.” She was a superstar who came to expect the flame and the burn. 4 out of 5.
Begin Again by Eddy Glaude Jr. Eddie Glaude takes his readers on a remarkable journey back in time, to the boy Baldwin was and the man he would become. It became clear to me immediately that Glaude knew Baldwin, I mean really knew and respected Jimmy. James Baldwin is one of my personal writing heroes, so I wade very cautiously into the waters of new biography, but there was no reason to fear this time. Glaude knows what he’s doing; excellent source material and historical records, in Glaude’s hand and through his analysis, guide the reader along competently and instructively. This rates now among those rare books that I’m truly thankful for existing in the world. 5 out of 5.
400 Hundred Souls edited by Ibbram X Kendi and Keisha N. Blain is described as a community history of African America, 1619-2019. To me, it reads like a survey study course of a four-century era, which meant there was never enough, not nearly enough material and context in each of the 80 chapters within their 10 parts; however, taking a few chapters together, or one total section, does help the reader to get a more complicated view of the multiple things happening at this time, in the (pre-)United States. As a starting point for rewriting history (in a good way – reclaiming what needs to be shared), this book is an achievement. I’ve already bookmarked sections that I know I’ll use to revisit with my students at various times. 4 out of 5.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Huston. I believe I first read this one in college, which would’ve been about 14 or 15 years ago. It is really not at all what I remembered; I had vague imagining of Tea Cake and of the other men, and I knew the town/people have something to do with the story, but I really couldn’t come up with many specifics. That said, it was a real treat to revisit it after such a distance (and two advanced degrees), and to be witnessing the genius work that Hurston does with language–and the racial politics surrounding it–as well as her genius for place and people, this being part of what made her such a brilliant anthropologist. I’ll admit that it took me a few chapters to sink into the language of her colloquial dialogue; I often reached graciously if a bit jealously for the moments of stricter prose. Richard Wright would later get Hurston very wrong; he claimed that Hurston’s use of the “low speech” or “slang” of her people was bound to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes, that it was harmful. I would have to say, Wright wasn’t yet seeing all the powerful things Hurston was doing with language, but it would be discovered again, many years later, by none other than Alice Walker. 4 out of 5.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. This book is a masterpiece. An absolute wonder. I hope the adage is true, that we turn to books when we are supposed to, because I’ve had this one sitting on my shelves for years and years, waiting patiently. I can’t say how many times I’ve almost picked it up. Having just recently read Butler’s Parable of the Sower, I knew I need to get to her again soon. I’m now just a little mad that someone kept me from Butler, or Butler from me, all my life until now! What a master story teller, strong and beautiful prose, rich and complex characters, deep, tragic, and meaningful plots. One of the most remarkably telling testaments to her craft is how epically, perfectly, and completely unexpectedly the bookends of the first scene and final scene work to hold this whole story and its time together, but also our whole American story, across time and place. I may be assigning this in one of my literature classes next semester. 5 out 5.
A Complicated Love Story Set in Space. Shaun David Hutchinson writes some of the most intereting and creative young adult novels on the market today. He often incorporates science-fiction elements into traditional but queer bildungsroman narratives. It should be no surprise that a book titled the way this one is, is right in Hutchinson’s wheel house. I found the story to be a lot of fun, but it also tackled some heavy and unexpected elements. It was, I think, smartly meta in at least two prominent ways, ways which would have seemed false had the meta narrative not been intentional. There has been a lot of pushback about the main character, who is definitely not likeable, but 1) I’ve never been that kind of reader (who cares if he’s not likeable – are only likeable people allowed stories?) and 2) this narrator in particular is specifically not supposed to be likeable. We learn why. It’s a mystery (that can seem tedious, I guess) until we learn why. So, I’m baffled by those who claim to have read the whole book and still say the can’t like it because the one guy is a jerk for most of it. Well, yeah! We know why he was a jerk. And we know he got better. How much perfection do we expect from our stories these days, my goodness? Anyway, I reqd through this 450-page tome in two days. It was fun! 4 out 5.
How to be a Poet by Jo Bell and Jane Commane: A very helpful, reflective-type guide for how to “be” a poet, not how to write poetry. This is a very different kind of thing. Rather than poem prompts, workshopping, etc., the “writing side” of being a poet, Bell and Commane focus on things like process, patience, and the practice of being a poet-person rather than just poet-writer. How to bring one’s self into the poetic lifestyle, as it is, and learn how to interact well and effectively with both the world around you (to gather matter for poems) and with others on this poetry journey. To create community. Helpful sections on publishing Dos and Don’ts, too, as well as the “blank white page” terrors, etc. 4 out 5.
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: This is a young poet’s dream collection, I think. It had a slow start, but as I kept moving through the poems, I started to see and feel more of what Jones is doing. Even the deeply uncomfortable became comfortable, because I knew Jones had this in control and that he would take me only exactly where he wanted me to go, and that he would end it where it needs to end. Two of my favorite poems in this collection are “Meridian” and “Beheaded Kingdom.” I’m not typically a fan of serial poems (poems with numbered chapters), but I really, truly enjoyed how Jones does them. 5 out 5.
Homie by Danez Smith: I’ve read Danez Smith in the past, and I’ve picked him up again because I enjoyed him before. He’s a powerful, witty, sexy, strong, sensitive, mad poet with so much to say, and such interesting ways of looking at the world. I was drawn right into this one even before the first poem. After the title page, which is fake, there’s an author’s note about the real title, and this page is followed by the real title page. I won’t disclose it here, because it’s not for me, but I thought the entire concept rather brilliant and also believable. As a commercial hook, I would’ve found it silly and annoying. But from Smith, whom I believe truly crafted it this way, it’s a statement to sit with before beginning. The rest of the collection returns to it, after all. One poem in particular gutted me, and that one is, “Waiting For You to Die So I Can Be Myself.” I’ll leave it at that. 5 out 5.
Life on Mars by Tracy K Smith: This collection is an elegy to Smith’s father, told through series’ of science-fiction poems. It’s a brilliant conceit, unlike any I have ever read before. Smith has some serial poems in her collection, too, that I really fell for, despite my typical aversion. One of these is, ‘Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” In, “The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” she writes of “tin cans we filled with fire” and the “dark we’ve only imagined.” Later, in “Universe As Primal Scream,” she pleads, “let the heaven we inherit approach;” she silences all the “racket” of the world and hears that something quiet “has begun to insist / upon being born.” Smith’s father was an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her concept, here, is a tremendous accomplishment, and a beautiful homage. 4 of 5.
The New Testament by Jericho Brown: Along with Ocean Vuong, Jericho Brown is definitely one of my favorite contemporary writers. I happened to receive two autographed copies of this one, so I put one away for safekeeping and read this one very gently. I might pass it on to someone, someday, if they’re truly deserving. Brown’s poetry is passionate, dangerous, and unflinching. He writes on sex and race and masculinity, and all of the nonsense that surrounds each of these. His focus often seems to be on how to ignore the garbage that our own self-doubting society foists upon us in order to simply live well and good and with fire. He’s one of the clearist poets I read regularly these days, yet he never ceases to surprise. 5 out 5.