Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:
Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.
(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)
This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:
- Clifford Thompson’s Love for Sale and Other Essays. Thompson is an occasional contributor to Commonweal and a regular writer for, among other places, The Threepenny Review and Cineaste. This collection, his first, is one of the best I’ve read in awhile. The essays touch on many different topics, from film (reviews of Monster’s Ball and Ali) to literature (essays on Zadie Smith and Tom Wolfe) to jazz (Thompson has a lifelong love of the form) to memoir (the first essay begins memorably, “The worst funeral I ever attended, by far, was my friend Gerald’s”). Despite the variety of subjects, though, all of the essays display the same strengths. They are lucidly written, reasonably argued, and expertly shaped. (You can see the influence of jazz in Thompson’s structuring, which relies upon associative leaps and digression but never becomes undisciplined or chaotic.) In one of the collection’s best essays, “Don’t Cry for Me,” Thompson describes what he calls “racial condescension”—the tendency of white liberal critics to “tread gingerly when discussing the work of black artists.” This mollycoddling, Thompson argues, does neither the artists nor the liberal cause any good. Serious black artists should be treated as serious artists, and punches shouldn’t be pulled for the sake of political correctness. This book introduces you to a mind and a sensibility—smart, honest, and judicious—that you’ll want to spend more time with.
- Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light. Smith is best known as a poet—her collection Life on Mars won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize—but this memoir shows that her prose can rival her poetry. Smith’s life hasn’t been the stuff of melodrama: she grew up in a middle-class black family in California, attended Harvard as an undergraduate, and pretty soon thereafter began publishing award-winning verse. So how can Smith maintain the reader’s interest? Primarily through her ability to show that good life-writing does not need melodrama; that a quiet, lovely style reflecting a sensitive, thoughtful mind is more than enough. I’ll have more to say on this book in a future column for the magazine.
- Ali Smith’s How to be both. This is the rare novel that is both absolutely experimental (it’s been compared to the work of Virginia Woolf) and absolutely enjoyable (Smith is one of the wittiest writers of literary fiction around). This novel is really a diptych: two novellas joined together, with each story echoing and enriching the other. One story describes the life of a female Renaissance painter; the other describes the life of a contemporary teenage girl dealing with the loss of her mother. Taken together, the stories investigate the nature of art and the slipperiness of gender. A friend of mine has already read the book four times, and I can see why: its intricacy and comedy reward rereading.
- Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. Chase’s novel, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, is narrated in the first-person plural “we,” a strange choice in a novel full of them. This choral voice emerges from a group of young girls—sisters and cousins, actually—living together on a farm in northern Ohio in the 1950s. Early in the novel, one of these girls, Celia, reaches puberty, and this process of sexual awakening is described as “a miracle and a calamity.” Chase follows the miraculous, calamitous nature of female existence over the course of three generations. Chase’s prose style sometimes reads like Marilynne Robinson in its reverence for the particulars of existence; at other times, it sounds like Sophocles in its austere power.
- Jonathan Galassi’s Muse. Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux as well an admired poet. Muse, his first novel, is a song of praise for these two loves, publishing and poetry. This isn’t to say that Galassi is naïve or sentimental: we see poets and publishers acting badly, driven by ego and ambition to act in ways that we’d prefer not to associate with the eternal world of art. But what remains with me the most from this book is how beautifully Galassi represents moments of literary triumph: when the poet finds the words coming just right, the lines breaking as if with a life of their own; when the pristine, unexpected manuscript shows up on the editor’s desk; when the publisher sees a masterpiece he has championed become recognized as such. Many critics have played a “who’s who” game with regards to Muse. The main character, Paul Dukach, shares certain traits with Galassi himself; his boss, the lustful, loud Homer Stern, echoes Roger Straus of FSG; Pepita Erskine resembles Susan Sontag. To me, such real-life parallels are far less interesting than Galassi’s ability to make poetry and publishing feel alive with complexity and drama and feeling.