Last month's books, even as we are nearing the end of this month:
1. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
I bought this after seeing the recent documentary about James Baldwin, and I wish I would have read it sooner. It is sharp and convicting and beautiful. Baldwin's central point is that "whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves." Baldwin's call is to unmask ourselves and to face the reality of the racial nightmare in America: "We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is." Baldwin's words have given me ways of thinking about what it means for me to be white in America today—which says something for the truth of his diagnosis, seeing that it is some fifty years since the original publication.
2. Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival by Christopher Benfey
I read this during a quick weekend trip to visit friends in Asheville: a memoir and travelogue by the great-nephew of Josef and Anni Albers. It was exciting to read about Black Mountain College while in those particular mountains, and to learn more about the history of a place that has long-fascinated me. While at times the narrative gets lost in Benfey's rather uninteresting family history, Benfey's writing is at its best when he talks about the nature of ceramics, and the way clay, like no other medium, must be surrendered to the laws of nature. The handle on a ceramic pot, Benfey writes, "marks the journey from one world to the other; it is the suspension bridge from the world of art to the world of use.”
3. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
What a delightfully strange book! I am still not sure what to make of it, though I think I could spend a full day thinking about nearly every line of this epic poem. I am speaking of phrases like this: "Reality is a sound, you have to tune in to it not just keep yelling," or this: "the skin of the soul is a miracle of mutual pressures." I suppose this is what I was supposed to feel after reading it, since the poem begins with the suggestion that "Words bounce. Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do." Anne Carson certainly lets words do what they have to do in such a way that they stick with you, even while the plot lost me at times (likely due to my needing a refresher on Homer so I could understand all the references).
1. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
As others have noted, it's difficult to describe the plot of this novel in just a few sentences—it's a saga that follows two immigrant families from Bangladesh and Jamaica, eventually culminating in the stories of their children growing up in London. Maya Jaggi writes in The Guardian: "[The novel's] characters embrace Jehovah's Witnesses, halal butchers, eugenicists, animal-rights activists and a group of Muslim militants who labour under the unfortunate acronym KEVIN;" basically, there's a lot going on in this book. I found myself only truly invested in the novel come the second half, but it was certainly worth getting there. Smith wrote it when she was twenty-four years old and that in itself is staggering. (Also, she and her husband have to be the most attractive people.)
2. Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis
By far the best book I read this month, and I wish I would have read it sooner. The title poem is comprised "solely and entirely of the titles, catalog entries, or exhibit descriptions of Western art objects in which a black female figure is present, dating from 38,000 BCE to the present." Lewis writes that the poem, some seventy pages in length, "is not about my imagination; it’s about the failure of white imagination. It’s about the pathology of whiteness. Whiteness is the heart of darkness." While "The Voyage of the Sable Venus" centers the book—literally and metaphorically—the additional stand-alone poems particularly caught my attention. It has been a long while since I have read a new poet that I have loved so much.
3. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
I really only picked this up because I was slugging through Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and I needed a break, and this book was laying around in my near-sight and seemed like an easy read. I've read bits and pieces of it in creative writing classes in the past, but never the whole book front-to-back. Anne Lamott is the sort of person that I want to be: always ready with a perfectly-humored story to illustrate a point.
Also, this is fun: Girls at Library.
Also, this is fun: Girls at Library.
"...for we are the Lord's joy and delight,
and the Lord is our balm and our life."
[Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love]
Derek in Brooklyn last November, when I flew up for the weekend and stayed with him in his first apartment in NYC and we went to the Guggenheim to see Agnes Martin's retrospective and had a long conversation about politics over pizza and wine at the restaurant down the street. I stayed in a tiny room in the front of the apartment that only fit the twin bed that I slept on but that had this large floor-to-ceiling window which overlooked the street below—basically, my dream.
I see the shape of my nose and eyes reflected in his face, and my questions, doubts, and fears reflected in his own. Our shared introspectiveness sometimes makes us boring conversation-partners, but there is also always this sense that he understands some part of me few (if any) other people have ever understood. These are inadequate words: sometime I will write a poem about him.
01. weekend with kendra and eight-straight hours of talking in the car
02. working with thomas, jamila, jeffrey, quedrith, and alyssa at the school for creative studies each week and remembering how much I love teaching (and these kids)
03. surprise afternoons at home alone with a book, and reading goals accomplished
04. the sense that durham is maybe, finally beginning to feel like home
05. this wonderful website about women photographers
06. this article on zadie smith
07. seventy-five degree weather in February, and drinking tea with austin on our front porch
08. yoga with ash and chandler at the YMCA
09. a day trip to richmond to visit candela books + the best pastries from sub rosa bakery
10. thinking and dreaming about what the rest of the year might hold for us
[35mm, A. at Eno River State Park]
1. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
I finally finished the Neapolitan Novels (about a year after everyone else) and I cannot get them out of my mind. I have started thinking of people in my life in terms of characters in the novels (i.e. he's being so Pietro right now). But more than that, I cannot get out of my mind the sort of "literary truth" that Ferrante speaks of in her interview with The Paris Review, the sense of unapologetic honesty in the world she creates, and particularly in the character of Elena. To be that intimate with a female mind felt like an awakening to my own mind, my own anger, fear, and desire that I often avoid confronting. I still have much more to process about these books.
2. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
If I hadn't also read Ferrante this month, Netherland would be without a doubt the best book I read (and possibly still is). I started it knowing little about it except that it gestured towards The Great Gatsby while being set in post-9/11 NYC. The novel is narrated by Hans van den Broek, who finds himself in NYC with a failed marriage and "an instinctive recognition of an awful enfeebling fatalism, a sense that the great outcomes were but randomly connected to endeavors, that life was beyond mending, that nothing worth saying was sayable, that dullness was general, that disintegration was irresistible." You get the point. The story masterfully investigates the nature of despair and loss, and O'Neill's prose itself is worth the read.
3. Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems by Christian Wiman
For a poet who doesn't believe in collected poems—because of how rare good poetry is—it is a funny thing to read their own collection of selected poems. Though I have read many of them before, it was a strange comfort to return to these poems, a sort of familiar space. I was especially delighted to re-read "Small Prayer in the Hard Wind," "2047 Grace Street," "We Lived," and "Hard Night."
4. The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner
A kind friend sent this book to A. and I over Christmas, having just read it himself. Not too unlike Hans in Netherland, the narrator of The Spectator Bird finds himself facing old age having fallen into a profession he did not want and a marriage that has become dull, not to mention that his only son died as a young man and left him without ancestors or descendants. Striving to find meaning in life, he returns to an old journal he kept while traveling to Denmark, which forces him to confront whether or not he had "gone through adult life glancing desperately sidelong in hope of diversion, rescue, transfiguration." He refused his one chance at just such a transfiguration, and in doing so, realizes that commitments—though not without pain—trump impulses.
5. Literacy and Justice Through Photography: A Classroom Guide by Wendy Ewald, Katie Hyde, and Lisa Lord
I am taking a course on the Literacy Through Photography curriculum this semester and couldn't be happier about it. We are reading this classroom guide and using it with students in Durham Public Schools. I have been a long-time fan of LTP and am excited to finally have a chance to get some hands-on experience. This is a great resource that I am sure I will keep returning to over the years.
One of the greatest gifts of this past year has been the continued prayers and encouragement I have received from Father Martin. This is one of the prayers he sent my way: words that have taught me, and continue to teach me, how to pray.
Father of all; I pray for my sister that she may not feel alone.
Yes: she must feel alone, and learn to love that aloneness before she can love at all: but I pray that she knows she is loved in that aloneness, that all-one-ness, in which You are the Lover: and the Beloved. And may her ache for that oneness never go away: until You bid it leave.
May she keep her sweetness through all this: her sense that there is a rightness to things; and a roundedness, and a resounding sense of the rightness of her place in Being.
And may she not lose her edge; that slight bit of tartness that sharpens our savour for more, that purifies with its astringency the puff and the pretense of so many of the rest of us.
May her purity and her passion continue to be a beacon to those of us who need it always but always manage to let it go astray.
And may - for our sake, and Yours - and hers - she find, day after day, the strength to live with it: to live with herself : in You.
With thanks for my sister: in Christ
(Father Martin Johnson)
Run a half-marathon. Nope.
Do one art project each month. Eh. In retrospect, this wasn't that helpful of a resolution, seeing as good projects take much longer than a month. But this past year has been good soil for an idea that is just now coming to seed, and which I am hoping will be finished this coming year, and am really excited about. That feels even more successful to me than doing twelve small projects.
Do the introduction class and two-week trial at the climbing gym. Maybe stick with it. Nope. Instead, I joined the YMCA and am loving it. I am pretty certain that YoPi at the Lakewood YMCA on Monday evenings is way better than any climbing gym.
Get more involved in Walltown. Keep popsicles in the freezer. Sit on the porch. Visit neighbors. Not really, except the sitting on the porch part and sharing some tomatoes with Mario and talking plants with Mr. B. Need to keep working on this.
Read a book a week—fifty two books in the year. I was so far from this goal, and it seems to me like the most important goal, the one that I need to really work on again this coming year. Not necessarily 52 books, but just more books. More reading. I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a working woman, to carry the burden of both making money and domestic responsibilities (something that I find myself falling into, by habit), and how little time that leaves for anything else besides sleeping. Finding time to read is hard, much harder than when I was in school. But I have also been realizing what a necessity it is for making art. If I am going to make art, I need to read more. And if I am going to read more, I need to be both better at fighting for my time and letting the dishes go.
Initiate girls' weekend with Rebekah and Anna. Kind of, not really. Try again for this year!
Go on a backpacking trip with Sarah.
Find a way to begin learning Italian. I tried so hard to get into a course at Duke and the local community college, but to no avail.
Compost. Build compost pile in the backyard.
Save and buy a new camera lens and/or body.
Have monthly re-evaluations of goals and life choices. Nope, not really.
Find a way to practice confession at a church. No. Perhaps this Lent?
Sew a dress.
Develop recipes of my own. Start collecting them into a homemade book/blog. Mm, not really, but I have got something in the works for the new year.
Bike more often.
Write long letters to friends, especially Jess, Kira, Jayne, etc. Some, but not enough.
Write one letter a week to Austin, even if short and sweet. Failed at this.
[our home, 35mm]