At this rate, I will have read close to 80 books by the end of the year, probably a record for me. On the other hand, I’m not getting much writing done, so maybe I should ease up. In any case, I did read some excellent books in June, and here they are:
Tap Out by Edgar Kunz is one of the best poetry collections I’ve ever read. I think poetry, even more than other art forms, either speaks to you or it doesn’t. These poems come from a dark place, a hard-scrabble place, and many of them deal with the poet’s fraught relationship with his father. While my childhood was less of a challenge than Kunz’s seems to have been, I can certainly relate. These poems speak to me. I picked this book up in March at a reading Kunz gave at Powell’s Books in Portland OR. He was the first reader and with his first poem I was hooked.
The Thin Light of Freedom by Edward Ayers was my book club’s selection for June, in large part because one of the main elements of the book is the story of what happened right here in Staunton VA during the civil war and in the early reconstruction period. The book, which follows up Ayers’s previous book In the Presence of Thine Enemies, focuses on our Shenandoah Valley county as well as a Pennsylvania county just north of the Mason-Dixon line and shows the real impact on real people of the conflict. Instead of describing the bigger-picture issues, we read about how the citizens of those communities are affected. While that’s all very interesting, I’m not sure I’d care much if he weren’t talking about this particular community. Also, the documents he presents here—the letters and newspaper articles—make it clear that the war was about slavery (and white supremacy), despite Confederate apologists’ claims to the contrary.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon, a faux memoir, is puzzling at first, because it isn’t clear where it’s going. Mike Chabon, the narrator, is interviewing his grandfather in the last days of his life, recording the old man’s story beginning with how he met Chabon’s grandmother, then backtracking to his experience in World War II in a special unit that was pursuing Nazi rock scientists, then moving forward again through the mental illness of the grandmother and finally to the grandfather’s life as a widower. Along the way, the reader is treated to the extended metaphor of the moon, rockets to the moon, seeking refuge on the moon, etc., which was the grandfather’s own controlling story. One imagines Chabon puzzling over how to tell this story. It could have been a straightforward narrative, without Chabon’s authorial intrusion or the bits about his interaction with the grandfather, or Chabon’s mother, for that matter. But the choice he made allows for a layer of reflection and reaction to the secrets that the grandfather reveals and those that Chabon uncovers after the grandfather’s death.
The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse is an odd little book, but reading it reminded me of why I loved Hesse’s work from an early age. The book is narrated by H.H. who, as a young man, joins the “League” and participates in that organization’s Journey to the East. The journey’s ultimate goal isn’t clear and it seems to wander through time and geography. After Leo, a servant, disappears, the journey seems to falter and, or so H.H. comes to believe, the League fades away. Years later, having gone through a period of despair, H.H. finds Leo again and the truth turns the story upside down. While I was drawn to the book originally—I’ve owned it for decades and probably read it for the first time in college—because I assumed the “East” of the title was a reference to Asia and the mix of religions that I knew Hesse was interested in—the title isn’t meant literally. In German the title is Die Morgenlandfahrt. “Fahrt” does mean journey, but “Morgenland” means, at least literally, “Morning Land.” While the word is used to mean East, the more direct translation of East is “Osten.” Morning Land, then, is probably more than just East; in my view, it’s about returning to one’s origins.
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer is required reading for any writer. I’m not sure when I became such a stickler for grammar, punctuation, and usage, but this book is definitely my kind of book. Because I have read a lot and because I taught Freshman composition for a while, not much of the book was a revelation to me. Rather, it mostly confirmed my usage prejudices—the things I insist on in my editing but often see handled incorrectly, even in printed books. Plus, Dreyer’s style is fun.
Bee Season by Myla Goldberg begins as a story about a 9-year-old in a spelling bee, but it becomes much more than that. As her aloof father, a Rabbi with an interest in mysticism, begins to train her for the bee, she takes her own mystical journey. At the same time, her brother, jealous of the attention his little sister is getting, is on his own journey, exploring various other religions, finally landing with a Hare Krishna group. Meanwhile the mother of the family is caught up in her own brand of mysticism. We see her obsessively cleaning her kitchen every night, but her compulsion goes way beyond that.
Long Drive Home by Will Allison is another good example of a structure I find appealing (similar to The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian, which I read last year). The book begins with the main character making a mistake in judgment, one that readers can probably sympathize with. The consequences appear to be deadly, however, and so he lies about what he’s done—to the police, to his family, and to himself. But the universe doesn’t let him get off so easily, and various forces including his guilt and a police investigation began to make his story unravel.
Out of the Desert by Betsy Ashton: In her new novel, Out of the Desert, Betsy Ashton has painted a portrait of the Mojave Desert that is part family saga and part social commentary. Even in its aftermath, the Vietnam War looms large, its effects lingering on the families of the lost, feeding deep rifts that take generations to heal. We also see the beginnings of the opioid crisis, pervasive racism, and the abortion debate. Through snapshots of members of an extended family, Ashton shows us a bleak reality for citizens of the desert, but also shows us what could have been. (This one’s not out yet.)