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!
All work published at Roof Beam Reader is copyrighted by the author, Adam W. Burgess. Do not copy, screenshot, or reuse work from Roof Beam Reader in any form without the express permission of the author.
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.
Somehow, I managed to read (or finish reading) nine books in the month of January (2021). I wasn’t expecting such a high number, but I think the fact that I was on vacation for ten days at the start of the month helped. I won’t go into much detail with my reactions/responses to these, though I have included my Goodreads “rating” after each title. For posterity’s sake, though, I should at least leave a word or two.
This was a pretty wide-ranging month in terms of genre, too. I realize now that I read everything from spiritual text and adult contemporary magical realism and Native American fiction, to LGBTQ YA fantasy, to writing philosophy, to poetry, to classic Black drama, to essays and journalism! What did I miss? Science-fiction? What are you reading these days?
In January, my selection for this year’s themed reading project (world religions) was the Tao Te Ching: A New English Version edited by Stephen Mitchell and published by HarperPerennial. I read a few verses each day, which turned out to be a great path. Each verse is a page or less, with 81 total verses in the collection. Reading about three per day not only kept me on track, but gave me a very manageable “bite” of things to think about each morning (or evening).
Ultimately, I found the Tao to be calming and reassuring. It provides and reinforces some very simple, straightforward ideas for living a good life, many of which I found were similar to the teachings of Buddhism (no surprise there considering its an ancestor) and Stoicism (a bit more surprising).
Simply put, the Tao was there before anything else existed and will remain after everything else is gone. It lives in everything, and if one is in harmony with the Tao, she is in harmony with everyone and everything. To do this, one must put aside ambition, possession, and mastery in order to lead not by force, but by example; to be wealthy not in profit or consumption, but in spirit.
Interestingly, while much of the Tao Te Ching was about the self, its final verses are about nations and governments. The Tao demonstrates how governments who are one with the Tao are good for the people, and what this might look like. It was a particularly profound way to end my first engagement with this philosophy, considering all that’s been going on in the United States.
Here’s one particular favorite, Verse 56:
Those who know don’t talk.
Those who talk don’t know.
Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.
Be like the Tao.
It can’t be approached or withdrawn from,
benefited or harmed,
honored or brought into disgrace.
It gives itself up continually.
That is why it endures.
Finally, much like Buddhism has “the middle way,” Taoism repeatedly speaks of “balance” in all things. I truly enjoyed reading these verses and will keep my copy of the Tao Te Ching on my desk for easy and regular reference, for a long time to come.
If you recall from my original post, I’m planning a kind of intercalary approach to my themed reading this year. For each short text, like the Tao Te Ching, which I read in one month, I add a longer text. The next one is Buddhist Scriptures published by Penguin Classics.
Here’s my reading path in case anyone would like to join:
• February 1-7: The Buddhist Universe chapters 1-7 (pages 3-59)
• February 8-14: The Buddhist Universe, Chapters 8-12 & The Buddha, Chapters 13-15 (pages 60-128)
• February 15-21: The Buddha, Chapters 16-22 (pages 129-199)
• February 22-28: The Buddha, Chapters 23-24 and Monastic Life, Chapters 25-28 (pages 200-268)
• March 1-7: Monastic Life, Chapters 29-35 (pages 269-334)
• March 8-14: Monastic Life, Chapters 36 and Meditation & Other Rituals, Chapters 37-43 (pages 335-393)
• March 15-21: Meditation & Other Rituals, Chapters 44-48 and Enlightenment, Chapters 49-50 (pages 394-449)
• March 22-28: Enlightenment, Chapters 51-56 (pages 450-512)
• March 29-31: Enlightenment, Chapters 57-60 (pages 513-548)
I had grand plans of writing this review in fairy tale style, inspired as I was by Trung Le Nguyen’s adaptations of classical fairy tales to share this beautiful story. But, alas, I’m not the wordsmith Nguyen is, and definitely not the artist! So, please accept humble words filled with rapturous praise for The Magic Fish, which was one of my Top 10 favorite reads in 2020.
To begin, when I read graphic novels I’m usually more drawn to either the story or the artwork. There are plenty where I think the two work very well together, even complement each other, but this might be the first time I’ve read a graphic novel where I equally enjoy and appreciate both elements to the same degree. The story itself follows a young boy of Vietnamese descent who is being raised in the United States. It is very similar to the author’s own life story. Nguyen, growing up in the American Midwest, learned Vietnamese and English at the same time, Vietnamese at home and English in school and with his friends. As a boy, he and his parents would visit the library once per week and spend time reading to each other. Nguyen’s favorite stories were fairy tales and he soon learned that some of the English-language fairy tales, those most of us growing up in the United States would know, were very similar to ones that his parents learned as children in Vietnam. They had wonderful conversations about the similarities and differences between western/English-language fairy tales and those from Vietnam, and in doing so, began to communicate with one another in two languages, sometimes switching back and forth to use the words most appropriate or familiar in the given moment. It was a kind of hybrid language that is perfectly embodied in this graphic novel. It’s a fascinating, beautiful personal narrative that informs this fascinating, beautiful graphic novel.
The protagonist, young Tiến, uses the fairy tales that he and his family know and love, across the two cultures, to bridge a personal gap between them: to explain to his parents that he is gay. Nguyen explains that, while writing the story, he imagined that each character had a different vocabulary informed by their life experiences. These vocabularies were navigated through shared cultural stories, fairy tales. And Nguyen brings this richly to life not just in his words and images, both of which are stunningly crafted, but in the truly seamless presentation of the two as a single narrative. This is not a story told through two devices; it is an experience gifted to the reader through a cohesive vision, expertly executed.
The heart of this graphic novel are three fairy tales, including two versions of Cinderella (the German and the Vietnamese) and The Little Mermaid. Also incorporated into the plot, though, are concepts such as traditional coming out and coming of age in America, the immigrant experience, issues of colonization and empire, post-war identity, and so much more. What on the surface might look like another wonderfully illustrated children’s story is in fact a powerful, delicate, and uniquely rendered story about a queer, Asian American boy’s life, his family, and their heritage, not to mention language itself.
I was utterly captivated by this one. At a time when I’m donating bags and bags of books to libraries and charities in a fit of “winter cleaning” and pandemic stir-craziness, The Magic Fish has found its place on my forever shelf.
Real life isn’t a fairytale.
But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?
Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?
A beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales, an instant classic that shows us how we are all connected. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what–we can all have our own happy endings.
About the Author: Trung Le Nguyen, also known as Trungles, is a comic book artist and illustrator working out of Minnesota. He received his BA from Hamline University, majoring in studio art with a concentration in oil painting and minor in art history. He is particularly fond of fairy tales, kids’ cartoons, and rom-coms of all stripes. The Magic Fish is his debut graphic novel.