Switch by A.S. King

Switch is innovative, perplexing, and heartbreaking. In other words, it’s exactly what we have come to expect from the one-of-a-kind mind and talent that is A.S. King. Even among her unique oeuvre, though, this novel stands out as experimental, which might explain some of the rather tepid reviews it has received thus far. It’s hard to prepare readers for a truly surrealist experience, and perhaps that’s especially true for young readers who might be experiencing surrealist literature for the first time. So, how does one prepare to read a book like this?

Well, the best way I can describe Switch is to say that it’s a visual depiction of what happens at the crossroads of trauma, grief, and recovery. Imagine every scenario, every emotion, that manifests from trauma: Isolation, doubt, self-loathing, fear, suspicion. Next, imagine the cause of all this is your own family, the very people (or person) you’re trapped with. And these people are also the ones you must rely on. Got it so far? Now: make that story visible. Literally, tell this story, in words, in such a way as to make the readers see and experience the unraveling of that trauma, that grief, right there on the page in front of them, not necessarily in the prose, but in the construction and deconstruction of that prose. Memories are metaphors. People are tools personified. Can you imagine? I doubt it. And there’s the genius of A.S. King. There’s the brilliance of Switch.

The story itself is told from the perspective of teenager Truda Becker, whose parents are going through a kind of separation, whose older brother is being blackmailed by their sibling over something that sort of did but sort of didn’t happen, and whose sister is a manipulative narcissist hellbent on turning the family members against one another. Truda’s father, in a noble but misguided attempt to heal his family, creates something that changes the world. As a result, many young people are discovering they have certain special abilities, and one of those young people might be Truda herself. What does all this mean? How can the world outside seem totally normal, everyone going about their business as usual, when one’s own home is descending rapidly and maddeningly into a labyrinth of secrets, lies, and makeshift security blankets? And how does one find the courage to right the world again if it means sacrificing her own special abilities in the process?

Why does time stop, how do we get it moving again, and is it worth it to try?  

This is an uncomfortable read, and intentionally so. Not only are the themes unsettling, but so too are certain actions and events that are alluded to with greater or lesser detail at different points in the narrative. So, it’s going to be tough to finish reading this story, close the cover, and walk away feeling what we might normally expect to feel after reading a young adult novel: Joy? Elation? Comfort? Well, no, not really, but there’s hope for those things. There’s hope, indeed, in the fact that, despite the visceral, almost painterly displays of trauma the protagonist Truda Becker experiences and depicts, she remains open to love in the end. She remains open to forgiveness—forgiveness, that is, for those who deserve it (including herself); but she also learns how to draw a firm line between herself and those who would harm her, and this is something she, even as the youngest, manages to teach the rest of her family, too.

Grab your crowbar. Flip the switch.

Notable Quotes:

“To understand anything is to understand energy” (24).

“Carrie has been on antidepressants for six months. She has gained eighteen pounds. The people who point out this weight gain to her far outnumber the people who ask how she’s feeling today, or if she feels like dying anymore” (59).

“I think the universe is rewarding me for dismantling Fear” (134).

“This is the solution to fourteen generations of bullshit that we don’t have to pass down to our kids. That’s our job. Generation fifteen. We’ll be the generation who heals” (164).

“Time stopped because it was sick of us being assholes to each other. So the only way to start it again is to stop being assholes to each other” (221).

Snow Day Updates

Photo by Lee Canyon

The weather here in America’s hottest region has been strange this weekend, to say the least. It’s tens of degrees cooler than normal and we’re even getting snow in the mountains! Snow in late-May! It’s quite an event, let me tell you, and I’ve been trying to enjoy every second of it. Soon enough (like, just a few days from now!) we’ll be nearing 100-degree highs. I thought I’d take a little break from enjoying the outdoors, though, to share some reading & writing updates, as well as some “laudable linkage.”

Recent Reading Updates

This month, I’m focusing on Asian American & Pacific Islander writers, in honor of AAPI Heritage month here in the United States. So far, I’ve read four texts:

  1. In the Country by Mia Alvar. This one is a collection of short stories spanning the Filipino diaspora. The stories are narrated by men and women, in first, second, and third person, and in countries ranging from the Philippines to the United States, to Bahrain. The stories are held together well thematically, and Alvar has a knack for the surprise or dramatic ending, particularly in the shorter stories. What’s most interesting about the entire collection, though, is the many facets of the Filipino experience that it presents for the readers. I imagine Filipino readers will find much to relate with while reading, and others will learn a great deal.
  2. Threshold by Joseph O. Legaspi was my first poetry collection of the month. Legaspi is also a Filipino-American writer, and his poems reflect the tensions created by his multiculturalism as well as his sexuality. This is the third collection by Legaspi that I’ve read in the last year, and it’s a remarkable one. I might still favor his Imago, but there’s a lot to love and appreciate in this one.
  3. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung is a memoir recounting Ung’s childhood during the Cambodian civil war. This is a brutally honest, sometimes graphic portrayal of what happened to Ung, her family, and many others like them when the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, rose up in insurrection against the Cambodian government, destroyed Phnom Penh, murdered anyone associated with the former government or any of its potential sympathizers (including those who worked for the police, those who were considered intellectuals, or anyone else who could pose a threat), and forced many others into work camps or military youth training. Absolutely harrowing and critical story.
  4. Let It Ride by Timothy Liu is the second poetry collection I’ve read so far this month (I have a re-read of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds on deck). I’ve only read one other Liu collection to date, Burnt Offerings, which absolutely blew me away, so I was eager to revisit his work. I was not disappointed. While I didn’t quite appreciate this one as much as Burnt Offerings, I still found it a rock-solid collection, tightly themed and generous in its exploration of form. I’ve added several his other collections to my “TBR.”

Currently, I’m reading Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima. It’s funny, about half-way into the book, I felt the urge to learn a little bit about the author. His style intrigued me, as did the story, so I wanted to know who this guy was. While doing some light research, I realized I own two more books by this same author! I’m not sure how I missed that, but I guess it’s a sign that, really, I have too many books! (Is that a thing?)

Recent Writing Updates

Something exciting that’s happened since things have begun to reopen is that I found a new morning writing spot. I don’t want to name names because I’m not particularly interested in giving free advertising, but I will say that it’s a rather large chain which currently has an awesome marketing ploy to get people in the doors. It worked for me! I’ve been a little distracted there, to be honest, because the place gets very busy. That said, it’s so good to be getting back into a routine. For some reason, I’m the kind of person who cannot write well at home. I do all my editing and revising at home, but as far as the original invention and writing/drafting phases? I just can’t do it!

I’ve also just found out that Broad River Review will be publishing one of my poems in their 2021 issue releasing late-Fall. This poem is part of a collection I’ve been working on; it’s very dear to my heart right now, so I’m absolutely overjoyed that Broad River Review liked it, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

Items Worth Sharing

  • My dear friend Shannon of Prairie 724 Knots has a wonderful macramé shop filled with all sorts of cool, handmade products. She just made available her PRIDE collection and is donating 25% of all Pride sales to The Trevor Project, which is an organization near and dear to my heart. I hope you will consider supporting Shannon and The Trevor Project!
  • Ocean Vuong, my biggest writing inspiration in recent years, has two new poems out at The Yale Review. I think they are both worth reading (and learning from.) “The Last Prom Queen in Antarctica” and “Wood Working at the End of the World.” The last lines of “Wood Working” will take your breath away.
  • Andrew Smith, a favorite writer, gave this wonderful interview at James Preller’s blog just a few days ago. It was a great read!

April is the Coolest Month

Hello, everyone, and Happy May Day!

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:

Poetry

  • 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.)

Fiction Collections

  • 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.

Novels

  • 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:

Classics Club Spin 26

The Classics Club Spin is back for the 26th time. Despite my near-constant failure with this challenge (I think I’ve “won” once or twice?), I’m going to try again. I’ve been on a reading hot streak and have been gravitating back towards literary works, lately, so maybe now is the time. Or maybe not.

I’ve linked to the Spin page here, but simply put, I list here 20 books from my Classics Club list (see the full list below) that I’m willing to read depending on where the “Spin” randomizer falls. The magic number will be revealed this Sunday, April 18th. I’ll then know which book I’m supposed to read by May 31st. Okay? Okay!

My Spin List

  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
  • Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
  • Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol
  • Pierre; or the Ambiguities by Herman Melville
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain
  • Doveglion: Collected Poems (c. 1942-1958) by José García Villa
  • The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Hanging on Union Square (1935) by H.T. Tsiang
  • Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

I am hoping for one particular number/book to “spin” my way this time, but we shall see. Wish me luck!

My Complete Classics Club List

Pre-1700 (4)

  • Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • Oroonoko by Aphra Behn
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

1700s (7)

  • The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (Completed 9/11/15)
  • The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (re-read)
  • Camilla by Fanny Burney

1800s (10)

  • Pierre; or The Ambiguities by Herman Melville
  • The Adventures of a Schoolboy by Edward Sellon (Completed 10/05/15)
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot (In Progress/Stalled)
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Completed 02/02/2017)
  • Corinne by Madame de Stael
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Completed 05/05/2018) 

1900s (27)

  • Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  • The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Completed 03/24/16)
  • The Bitterweed Path by Thomas Hal Phillips (Completed 01/11/16)
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Completed 06/26/2020)
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Completed 02/19/16)
  • Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Completed 05/10/17)
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Hanging on Union Square (1935) by H.T. Tsiang
  • Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Completed 01/07/16)
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (Completed 07/15/17)
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (Completed 01/06/16)
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (Completed 09/05/15)
  • Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (Completed 01/18/20)
  • Doveglion: Collected Poems (c. 1942-1958) by José García Villa
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald (Completed 04/23/16)
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Completed 11/22/2020)
  • The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (Completed 3/30/18)
  • The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
  • Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller
  • The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

2000s (2)

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill

Progress: 17 of 50 Completed (34% done)

March Reviewed and April’s Holy Vedas

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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