I had an incredibly active reading month in April, so I’m going to post the list of titles that I read (by genre) below, with very, very brief comments on each. I read a total of 16 titles, so there’s just no way I can give any kind of detailed reviews this time around. My focus was on poetry because April was poetry month, but my two favorite reads of the month—and indeed of this year so far—are listed last, under the “Novels” section. P.S. May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month so my focus for the next four weeks will be on AAPI texts (see image at the end of this post.)
And a quick note on writing progress: I’ve submitted two chapbook manuscripts for poetry and have written some new poems, as well as worked on revisions of a half dozen. I’ve got ideas for another half-dozen poems jotted down in note form & hope to work on those this month. I’m also working on a new(ish) novel. Poetry has been my focus, though, and I’ve been reading a lot about it from a craft perspective. It’s also the current strand of coursework that I’m pursuing at UC Berkeley right now (I’m in the creative writing program and will be completing work in fiction and poetry, but right now I’m tuned into the poetry track.)
What I Read in April:
On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell: I think I gave this one a 3 on Goodreads. I thought a lot of the poetry lessons that this teacher incorporates are interesting and engaging, but the overall style and construction of this book on the craft of poetry was not for me. That said, I did place a flag on almost every writing lesson page & plan to keep the book at hand for generative phases/practice.
Thirst by Mary Oliver: All things considered, Mary Oliver is not a poet I should enjoy. She writes a lot about religion and spirituality from a Christian perspective. So many of her poems are kinds of prayers and praisesongs. Nevertheless, Oliver is a revelation. When she writes about nature, about gratitude, about loss, and yes, even about religion, she writes with an inexplicably simple catharsis. Her lines are simple, her forms recognizable, and yet both form and line, word choice and image, are masterclass.
Breaking Glass by Jean Valentine: This is my first time reading Valentine, and I’m not sure she’s one I’ll return to often. She’s a National Book Award-winner for poetry, though, and her mastery of craft is apparent. I especially loved two poems from this collection, “Diana,” a short standalone, and Lucy, which is actually a mini-collection of poems about the earliest known hominid. That exploration was utterly fascinating.
This Way to the Sugar by Hieu Minh Nguyen: Oh, gosh, did I enjoy this collection! I flagged seven poems as particularly interesting to me. I responded mostly to the themes and content of these poems, but Nguyen also has quite a few interesting and effective form poems in here that were edifying. I’m not sure if this collection is as tightly connected as his Not Here poems, but there are definitely close threads and I loved it just the same.
New Hampshire by Robert Frost: This collection contains some of Frost’s most famous and instructive poems, including “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I also fell in love with poems like “The Lockless Door” and “Fire and Ice.” Frost is noted as one of America’s master poets for good reason, but overall, I was not enamored with the collection in total. That said, I did think the title poem (“New Hampshire”), which I had never read, was excellent. What an interesting balance of seriousness and play.
He’s So Masc by Chris Tse: This poet is a New Zealander of Chinese descent, a unique perspective that added great interest to the poems thematically. I also loved being invited to witness an outsider’s perspective on places like New York City, which is a fun contrast to, say, O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which I read last month. I flagged six specific poems in this collection as ones to return to, including “Summer Nights with Knife Fights,” “Release” (which contains one of my favorite poetic lines recently read), and “I Was a Self-Loathing Poet.” I came close to giving this one and Nguyen’s collection 5s on Goodreads.
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith: Not too long ago, I read Smith’s Life on Mars collection. I was not the biggest fan of that one, though I did like several its individual poems. I much preferred Wade in the Water and found it to be good evidence as to why Smith was named Poet Laureate of the United States. Two poems that stood out to me were, “The Angels” and “Unrest in Baton Rouge.”
The Seven Ages by Louise Glück: Here’s another poet, like Jean Valentine, who I think we’re supposed to love. There’s been a lot of talk about these two in poetry-land recently (Valentine having passed away not too long ago & Glück having just won the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature). I just didn’t feel this collection. Again, in studying craft, this is super helpful, but the poems styles and themes weren’t what I’m drawn to (no fault of the poet!) That said, “Quince Tree” blew me away. I started marking pieces of the poem and ended by basically circling and underlining the entire thing.
Subways by Joseph O. Legaspi: I was such a huge fan of Legaspi’s collection Imago that I bought his other two collections immediately after finishing that first one. I didn’t respond much to this one, though, and in fact, I can’t clearly recall a single poem from this collection. That said, I’m still very interested in Legaspi’s work and am looking forward to reading the third collection, Threshold, this month for AAPI Heritage. (I think Legaspi has one more chapbook out there somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet.)
Indecency by Justin Phillip Reed: It’s safe to say that Reed remains one of my favorite contemporary writers. I was crazy for The Malevolent Volume but might have enjoyed this one even more. I gave both collections 4s on Goodreads, but this one came very, very close to my only “5” for poetry this month. The most recent 5 I gave in poetry was to Adrienne Rich, so that’s saying something. (By the way, I read, what, sixteen books this month? I only gave two of them perfect scores. So, a 4 is grand. This is just a disclaimer for all those nutty nuts who have been going bonkers about “less than perfect” ratings on Goodreads. Shush. You’re not cute.)
Dusk Night Dawn by Anne Lamott: I love reading Anne Lamott. It’s an odd writer-reader relationship, considering her personality (in real life) would probably irritate me to no end – I don’t think she’d mind me saying that) and considering she writes a lot about Christian faith, which is something that a) I don’t share and b) I tend to bore of rather quickly. But Lamott is refreshingly real. She doesn’t just own her struggles, failures, and hypocrisies, she invites others in to witness them, laugh at them, learn from them. Despite her penchant for self-doubt, I think this is a sign of an incredibly confident and competent writer. In this collection of essays, Lamott connects her own fears and exasperations that have been exacerbated by the Trump era with personal experiences and universal relatability. To be so honest and effective a writer is something I think I’ll only ever be able to strive for.
Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway: I picked this one up after watching the new Hemingway documentary, which I thought was well done and which essentially substantiated a theory I wrote about Hemingway many, many years ago. I think I’m one of those weird outliers who prefer Hemingway’s novels to his short fiction. Well, no, I don’t think it, I know it. What I mean is, I guess the fact that I prefer his novels is what makes me a weird outlier, because everyone else seems to come down clearly on the side of his short stories. I was bored by this collection, to be honest. There are some incredible gems in it (“Hills Like White Elephants”; “A Simple Enquiry”; “Ten Indians”; and “An Alpine Idyll”), but it didn’t leave me in any rush to read more of his short fiction. It did, however, make me want to re-read his novels. His voice, what he can do with a sentence, is no joke.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt: I’ve got a few bookish friends who have been on my case (in friendly fashion!) about finally reading this one. I’m glad I did! The whole “dark academia” genre is one I’ve been into since my earliest reading days, when I discovered books like A Separate Peace (and I suppose even Catcher in the Rye might fit into this somewhat.) While reading, I was surprised to learn the “big reveal” right away, and even more surprised to reach what seemed to be the conclusion of the book less than halfway through. It soon became clear to me, though, that this book is about the psychological fallout of an action rather than the action itself. This seems to be one of the, hm, misconceptions about this book from a great deal of reviewers online. I think too many people confused the end of the action with the end of the story, but that was just the beginning. Where a lot of readers were let down by that, I loved it. Couldn’t put this one down, though the prose did leave me with mixed feelings. And I hated literally every single character. Still. Couldn’t put it down. How’s that for a trip?
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: What an absolutely devious book. Ishiguro creates a stunningly heartbreaking narrator who is perhaps one of the most delightfully unreliable narrators I’ve read since The Good Soldier. The entire book is his effort to confront his own memories as the begin to hit him in later life, and to threaten to unravel everything he thought he knew about his beloved employer and about his own station in life. The narrator seems unable to admit fault in himself and in his employer because, if he does, it means he too was a part of one of humanity’s greatest evils. Really brilliantly conceptualized and intimately rendered. The story itself is, well, not exciting, and I think some people will have a hard time getting through it because of that. It doesn’t seem like much happens, and ultimately what the reader might hope or expect of the narrator does not come to fruition. It’s not, in that sense, a satisfying read. But what a concept, and what effect.
*Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell: I bought this book on its release day over a year ago. I knew I’d like it. But for some reason, I put off reading it. Time passed. Reviewers raved about it. And I started to think, ‘Oh, but what if I don’t like it, after all?’ Did I hype it too much? Am I now going to be disappointed by a book I was sure I’d enjoy? So, there it sat on a shelf, neglected, while I read a thousand other things. Finally, this month, I sat down and gave myself a stern talking to: “Just read it! This isn’t life and death, man, it’s a book!” And now I’ve finished, and Hamnet was somehow everything I expected and nothing I expected. What a beautiful damn story this is, synthesizing biographical fiction, magical realism, and literary history. It is also not about Hamnet. It’s not even about Shakespeare. I mean, the guy is in it, of course, but the story is actually about… well… go read it and find out.
*At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill: Like Hamnet above, this one is a book I’ve been meaning to read since it was fist published (although in this case, I’m behind two decades instead of just a year.) If I’m remembering correctly, I tried to pick this one up years ago but put it away because its prose is a bit difficult to get into. I knew I’d stick with it this time, though, because this is the book that the Classics Club Spin pulled for me. I was hoping for it, I got it, and now I’ve read it. And what an absolute joy. That’s a strange thing to say about a book with such a heartbreaking conclusion, but the whole thing is a gorgeous experience. It did take me some time to settle into the prose, especially the dialogue, which is written in local dialect—a kind of Irish-English slang from the early 1900s. There’s plenty of erudite vocabulary in the straight exposition itself, which led me to thanking my dictionary app, but the dialogue (and one character’s inner-monologues, especially), took effort. At some point, though, I realized I had settled into the beautiful flow of things and had been invited in, much as the sea invites O’Neill’s two young protagonists into it. I don’t think I can recommend this one highly enough for any lover of historical fiction, gay fiction, and/or literary fiction. A remarkable achievement.
So, I had a wonderful time with poetry this month and will continue it (to a lesser extent, probably) next month. My two starred readings of the month, though, are At Swim, Two Boys and Hamnet, both of which are also two of my favorite books of the year. We’ll see how they hold up to the next 8 months of reading!
Oh, right! Here’s what I’ll be reading in May for AAPI Heritage Month:
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