March Reading Review
Before I get into reading stuff, some updates on the writing life. First, have I shared here that I’m the new Columnist for LGBTQ+ Literature & Craft at DIY MFA? I can’t recall; but my first article went live in early-February and my next one goes up in late-April. I’ll add that one to my publications page as soon as it’s ready. Additionally, I’ve made some progress with submissions of my first novel (YA LGBTQ) and continue writing, revising, and submitting poetry. I’ve got a second novel (adult/literary fiction) in progress. Very early stages.
Now, to the reading! In March, the longest of the year so far (and one which should’ve yielded some free time, considering I’m currently on Spring Break), I’ve managed to read just a bit less than I did in January and February. Oh well! This month was filled with extreme joy from positive news and extreme despondency from some terrible news. So it goes.
Despite life’s raging waters, I did read 9 books this month and they were, for the most part, excellent. (Technically I’m at 8.5, since I’m currently more than half way through reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, but I also read half of Buddhist Scriptures in February, and half this month, so let’s call that an even draw?) Here’s the scoop!
Buddhist Scriptures, edited by Donald S. Lopez: Of all my themed texts this year, I think I was most excited for this one because I sort of identify as a secular (and western) Buddhist. I have to admit, though, that most of this went way over my head, and that I was shocked (oh my naivete!) by the amount of, well, religion in Buddhism. So many of these stories are loaded with mythology, supernatural accounts, etc. It’s clear to me, now, why religious Buddhist practitioners are often so exasperated by western secular Buddhists like me. We’ve taken some of the core philosophy and discarded all of the religion, which is maybe 90% of the culture? Anyhow, it was a challenge to get through this one. Buddhism is such an ancient and complex religion, with numerous sects, each of which has its own history. It felt a lot like reading the origins of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) and their separations from “Point X,” except with less prior knowledge. That said, I enjoyed the many perspectives, the very helpful introductions to each section, and the text’s introduction itself, as well as the lists for further reading. I don’t think Buddhism can truly be read from any single “scripture” the way some other major religions can be, which makes this particular edition simply a starting point.
The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich: I’ve read one or two (or three) Adrienne Rich poems in my day but never an entire collection. I’m glad to have rectified that at last! My goodness, this book of poems dated 1974-1977 is fantastic. A powerful examination of what it is to be woman, queer, and both at the same time, at a particular flashpoint in American history. I enjoyed, especially, the common themes that held these poems together. Rich leans toward numerated verse poems in this collection, which aren’t typically my favorite (I get a little anxious over long poems), but honestly this is a fantastic work. Some of my favorites are “Hunger,” “Cartographies of Silence,” and “A Woman Dead in her Forties.”
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut: Ah, my return to Vonnegut, at long last. I’m nearly done reading his complete works, and then I’ll start over again in chronological order, probably, although I do still have his book of collected letters to read. This is definitely one of Vonnegut’s best and most personal (though they’re all good and they’re all personal.) It’s one of the most interesting explorations on the nature of good and evil, and the nature of people’s engagement with that very question as it pertains to individuals, be it ones they know or ones they don’t. It also reads as incredibly relevant right now in this age of cancel culture and instant judgement. This one also begins with my favorite Vonnegut line: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Later by Stephen King: The latest from Stephen King, a writer I read often, is definitely not my favorite. This one is published by Hard Case Crimes, the same group that published King’s Joyland, which I loved. I think I was a little irritated with the narrator who continued to promise the reader that “this is a horror story,” when it reads absolutely unlike horror until the final pages. To that point, it’s a decently interesting coming-of-age story about a young boy/teen/man who has special abilities which are eventually exploited by someone he should have been able to trust. It just felt a bit easy, to me. I will say, however, that the “horror” promised is somewhat surprising and more in the vein of human horror than the kind of supernatural type we might be used to from Stephen King. Maybe that’s not surprising, though, since the hart of any King novel is always, “my, what do we do to one another?”
The Dharma of Poetry by John Brehm: This was delightful! Brehm offers an interesting perspective on the purpose of poetry, alongside excellent and illuminating explications of some brilliant poems. I found the book intellectually stimulating and emotionally refreshing.
Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara: Conversations about Frank O’Hara have been all over the place, recently. I think his birthday was just a few days ago (March 27), so maybe that’s why? I don’t know. I enjoyed this little collection, but only a couple of poems really caught my attention. These are “Ave Maria” and “Cornkind.” Otherwise, some surprising and powerful lines here and there, definitely, and an irreverent attitude plus engaging way of looking at absolute ordinary living. Overall, though, I wouldn’t place this particular collection among the very favorites I’ve read in the last couple years.
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin: I don’t know that James Baldwin can do any wrong in my eyes. This is his first novel, and its hopeful tone makes that clearer than anything else. It is brilliant in its construction and its subtlety. Baldwin has a terrible ability to say exactly what he wants to say without overstating it, which is especially fruitful, I think, when considering that much of what he’s writing about is race and (homo)sexuality. The world now is absolute crap at dealing with these concepts, so imagine writing about them in the 1950s! Baldwin says of this one that it is “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything.” I get what he means. It’s autobiographical and universal, too. I’m not sure it has much of a competitor in his oeuvre outside of Giovanni’s Room.
Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey: Published in England in 1994. Where has this play been all life!? I’m a little embarrassed to have just read it for the first time. A hopeful account of young gay love when most accounts were muted, if not downright horror-filled, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Funny, honest, tender, beautiful. I’m delighted to see there’s a film adaptation available to stream. I’m strongly considering adding this one to a future class’ required reading.
This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garrett: This one would 5 stars for the illustrations alone. I was set to give it a 3 but the last section was great and, for me, what I’d have liked most of the book to be. A good 2/3 of it, though, was a bit too jargon-heavy, cerebral, and detached. Very self-referential and not enough tacit guidance or modeling for its titular promise. Until the end chapter, that is. The author himself admits that it’s his singular philosophy, and a meta investigation of it, so fair’s fair, I guess. But most people either won’t get beyond the philosophy or beyond the “bias/politics.” (And that’s coming from someone who agrees with the writer’s politics almost completely.) Did this book make me kinder? No. And yes.
April’s World Religion Theme: The Holy Vedas
This month’s theme is The Holy Vedas. I’m reading the Penguin illustrated edition by Pandit Satyakam Vidyalankar. The book is 448 pages long, including introductory materials, so that comes out to about 15 pages per day. I think that should be more than doable considering the reading per page is usually not extensive (broken as it is into verses of large text size.) The book is also broken into 6 major sections, so I’ll try to aim for one or two of those a week.
I’m excited to engage with this one, as I’ve got absolutely no background in or prior knowledge about Hinduism, unlike the Tao Te Ching & Buddhism (January and February/March). Once again, though, I’m not reading the text from a religious or spiritual context, but simply as a curious reader who wants to know more about the major religions of the world. If you’d like to join me on that adventure, I’d be happy to have you!
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