Last month I shared that I was limiting my monthly reading so that I would have more time to prioritize writing and people in my life. I also wanted to get better at reflecting on what I was reading, so I started this monthly newsletter to write a few words about each of the five books I read in a given month (you can read about my January books here).
In February, two works of criticism (by Emily Nussbaum and James Baldwin) deepened my understanding of the critical task, while two novels (by Sally Rooney and Annaleese Jochems) both coincidentally included sharp commentaries on capitalism. As the shortest month of the year draws to a slow end, I turned to poetry (by Ada Limón) to settle into the slowness and change my thinking process. More on all of that below:
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Last year, I read (and loved) Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and I finally got around to her first novel after reading this excellent essay by Sharon Marcus, who argues the novel is a new kind of bildungsroman. Though I hold Normal People closer because of its relatability to my own life, nobody is writing characters like Rooney. In particular, Frances is listless when it comes to work, theoretically anti-capitalist as she finds herself, alongside Bobbi, her best friend and one-time lover, among a privileged couple who collapses their distance from the material world. Their conversations about wealth and class challenge their theories in practice, as Frances tries to believe, and honor, that she has “a body like anyone else,” not apart from the world but part of it.
I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum
I’ve been intentionally developing my voice in criticism for the past year, and Emily Nussbaum’s collected essays on television from the New Yorker were perfect for learning about criticism as an art form. Nussbaum argues that conversations about art are always larger conversations about what we value, and that even when critics say they hate something, there is a subtext of praise in suggesting that a piece of art could have been great, but wasn’t. She has a lengthy essay on the #MeToo movement and reckoning with the art that we once loved—it’s the best thing I’ve read on the #MeToo era.
The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin
For the tension in the theater is a very different, and very particular tension: this tension between the real and imagined is the theater, and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater, we are re-creating each other.
I have been working on a series of essays about films for the better part of a year, and I wanted to read a work of film criticism. Though there are plenty of recommendations on the Internet, I turned to my favorite author, James Baldwin, who was a lifelong film lover. The Devil Finds Work was his book-length essay on movies, and of course, Baldwin uses it to think deeply about humans in relation to one another, and how movies reflect back to us our ideas of life. He considers race, sexuality, and gender on the silver screen, and in his final evaluation, he looks at the movies as another kind of church, where we must be ever-vigilant to face the devil in our own mirror. Even Baldwin’s minor works feel major.
Baby by Annaleese Jochems
This was my monthly book club read, an irreverent seafaring tale about a woman obsessed with the woman she just ran away with, but hardly knows. I won’t say anymore, because I’m giving myself a new challenge each month: write a review of one of the five books I read. I’ll update this post with a link to that review.
The Carrying: Poems by Ada Limón
Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What
would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?
I like the way that poetry changes the way we pay attention, and near the end of this month, short but full of professional frustrations, I felt it was time for me to change what I was attending to, and how. I am a longtime fan of Ada Limón’s work, and her collection Dead Bright Things was one of my favorite books I read last year. In The Carrying, she writes of the desire to have a child while her parents age, the natural world intertwining with her own mortality as she considers “what we’ve been taught to do with death.” Deeply personal and political, Limón works to celebrate her humanity while reflecting on its complicity within the shape of the world. If you’d like an introduction to her work, this poem remains my favorite.