10 best books I read this spring

I read less in the spring than in other seasons, mainly because I start obsessively monitoring my garden, but I still got through an enjoyable assortment this year. Here are my favorites from the past few months.

01. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney

Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996

Can anyone, really, compare with Seamus Heaney? I think not. You can drink of him all day and never have your fill.

02. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

“A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. He runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?”

A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it.

03. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo

Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. George Saunders is able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character.

04. In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caryn Zucker

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism

Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name — and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails — has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present.

That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.

I’ll admit that I harbored a good deal of fear about autism (and receiving that diagnosis for a potential child), but a lot of that misinformation I was carrying was been addressed by the thoroughness of this book. And while there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been — thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved.

05. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

I first read this novel when I was a teen, years ago, and I liked it so much more upon a second reading this time around, about a year away from 30. I re-read it in preparation for a book club in which all of my fellow members bailed, citing there was “too much sex” in it. Cue eye roll.

The Handmaid’s Tale shocks me less than it did then, and that’s perhaps the depressing element. But I’d forgotten how enjoyable and incisive Margaret Atwood’s prose is. It is somehow skillfully plain but never boring; she embellishes at all the right moments.

In the tradition of a slave narrative, Offred is a complicated and compassionate narrator, and I enjoyed listening to her.

Could this happen now, in the United States, or even in the future? Doubt it. (Atwood can seem a little high-strung to think that this is where we could be in the 1990s, but it makes sense that this is what she was thinking about, because she wrote the novel while living in Berlin in the early 1980s.)

But some aspects of Gilead don’t seem that far off. Obsession with women’s bodies and controlling reproduction has always been a hallmark of any fundamentalist religion. There are whispers of Gilead-like policy even now.

(No, I haven’t seen the Hulu series yet; yes, I’d like to.)

06. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain

All the darkness and heaviness of a Christianity built on a foundation of guilt and shame. God bless James Baldwin and all he went through to bring us this tidy, transformational masterpiece of American fiction.

Read for the second time, again for book club, but this time the members actually showed up, and we had a lively discussion.

07. Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, Charles Wright

Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems

“There is so much that clings to us, and wants to keep warm.”

Breathtaking, marvelous poems. I have always enjoyed Charles Wright, and this was a far-ranging and enjoyable collection of his later work. It is a pleasure to merely live in the same town as Wright, to know that a poet of this matchless caliber lives in my county.

08. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

The Sportswriter

“I have become more cynical than old Iago, since there is no cynicism like lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that’s visible at the tunnel’s end.”

I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs.

09. Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan

Is There No Place on Earth for Me?

They just don’t make journalists like they used to.

Marvelously researched. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia.

10. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller

Image result for femininity susan brownmiller

“Women are all female impersonators to some degree.”

For women readers, this book doesn’t contain much new information, but it’s a thought-provoking collection of all the ways that femininity is impressed and enforced upon us.

I appreciated the moments when Susan Brownmiller divulged that she too, despite being a pants-only, makeup-less feminist, is sucked into the femininity vortex (obsessing about her hair, modulating her posture to appear smaller or more deferential, etc.); it makes you feel less alone, and just as confused as every other thinking women about what to perform and what to eschew.

The book left me feeling the same as I always do when I contemplate the masculine-feminine binary, which is, simply: frustrated. Useful to have a collection of all of these cultural rules in one place, though, I suppose, if only to wonder about their origin and how to rebel against them.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben
  • Exit West, Mohsin Hamid
  • Simple Matters, Erin Boyle
  • The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

Catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Dear Maddy and Sam came to London for the week, and then we took off for the Lake District for an absolutely stunning weekend. Turns out the northern part of the UK is not kidding around when it comes to outrageous beauty. We were tremendously lucky with the weather, too, because everyone had warned us that it would rain the entire time. Instead, we got this all weekend:

Catbells summit(We met several locals who told us, “This is the first sunshine we’ve seen in nine months.”)

We stayed in this charming (if mildewy) cottage in Kirkby-in-Furness, in a quiet and secluded hamlet at the southern edge of the Lake District:

Kirkby-in-Furness

Kirkby-in-FurnessOn our first night, Sam (very expertly, considering that this was his first time driving in the UK) drove us all up the gorgeous/treacherous little roads to Kirkstone Pass, where we had a hearty supper at the Kirkstone Pass Inn, which is the second-highest pub (in terms of elevation) in the United Kingdom.

Kirkstone PassKirkstone Pass(Sparking so many geographical flashbacks to Iceland…)

First night in the Lake DistrictWindermereAs we descended, we stopped in Windermere to enjoy the sunset.

WindermereWindermereWindermereOn Saturday, bright and hot, we took on the Catbells hike, which did not disappoint, with its 360-degree views of the mountains, lake, and surrounding loveliness.

Catbells summitCatbells summitLake District day twoCatbells summitCatbells summitCatbells summitCatbells summitCatbells summitAfter hiking down, we timed the ferry around the lake poorly and spent £8 on a five-minute ride, but then we got to walk around the lake, so it was not entirely a loss.

Lake District day twoKeswickOn the drive home, we hit the golden hour in this stunning valley and felt so delighted to be there, together. We rolled around in the grass, Maddy (mildly) terrorized some sheep, and we marveled at our good fortune.

Lake District golden hourLake District golden hourLake District golden hourLake District golden hourMaddy terrorizes some sheepQuite possibly my favorite photo from the entire weekend:

Favorite pic from the Lake District

We said goodbye to Kirkby-in-Furness on Sunday morning by walking to the coast. Guion and Sam were nearly washed out to sea when the tide came in (and covered all of that strange, spongy grass you see below).

Kirkby-in-FurnessKirkby-in-FurnessKirkby-in-FurnessGuion read us this Heaney poem on the first night of our stay and it served as the perfect sketch of our general feeling about being in the Lake District (even if it is about Ireland).

Postscript
Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

Lake District day two

Best poetry I read in 2015

To kick off my annual lists of the best things I read in the past year, here are the best 10 books of poems I read in 2015.

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

1. The Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis

Selected Poems

2. Selected Poems, Rita Dove

Electric Light: Poems

3. Electric Light, Seamus Heaney

Life on Mars

4. Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Almanac: Poems: Poems

5. Almanac, Austin Smith

Elephant Rocks: Poems

6. Elephant Rocks, Kay Ryan

The Long Approach

7. The Long Approach, Maxine Kumin

[Out of print; I seem to have the only copy in the world.]

8. House, Bridge, Fountain, Maxine Kumin

Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations

9. Of No Country I Know, David Ferry

What Goes On: Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009

10. What Goes On, Stephen Dunn

Up next: Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2015. Any favorite books of poems you read this year?

Favorite books from March

I read a lot of very enjoyable things in March. Particular favorites from the past month:

A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West. Utterly charming in every way! A delight for literature-loving gardeners.

Offshore

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald. My first introduction to Penelope Fitzgerald, and I found myself totally smitten by her. Continuing my newfound obsession, I am currently reading The Blue Flower, which I stumbled on at the library book sale.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum. I might just share a brain with her, for better or worse.

Electric Light: Poems

Electric Light, Seamus Heaney. The most delightful neologisms.

Between the Acts

Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf. This was the third time I’ve read this novel, Woolf’s last, and I was so pleased to discover that I enjoyed it just as much now as I did as an undergrad. I like how loose and playful it is. It is not her best, but Woolf’s “not best” is far superior to the majority of fiction. So. There’s that.

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast. Funny and heartrending in all the right ways.

All the King's Men

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren. This was on my to-read list for many years; it’s stirring and interesting, in ways that I didn’t expect.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems, Rita Dove. I also finally got around to the work of Rita Dove, one of my town’s resident famous poets. Deeply enjoyable. She has such an enchanting musicality to her work.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison. Borrowed from Celeste, my personal purveyor of good things to read. A well-written account of the author’s life with manic-depressive illness and its juxtaposition to her career as a psychologist.

Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino. Some people may find this plot-less collection of observations frustrating, but it is just the sort of thing that I love.

What did you read and enjoy in March?

Books I own that I will probably never read

I own a lot of books. It is dismaying, however, that I own so many that I have little to no interest in reading. I haven’t given them away yet, because I am suffering under this delusion that I will wake up one day with nothing I want to read and gamely pluck Beowulf or The Tale of Genji off the shelf. I doubt this will ever happen. I doubt I will ever be in a mood to read Don Quixote. So, these books are going to probably stay, unloved and unread, on my shelves for another decade or two.

To name a few of the neglected:

  • Beowulf. Should read it; Guion even has the sexy Seamus Heaney translation with the creepy/awesome cover. But… ugh… man. It sounds like zero fun times.
  • The Gulag Archipelago, Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. Talk about zero fun times!
  • The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu. I really should read this: It is the first true novel ever written and it was by a Japanese woman. Why haven’t I read this?
  • Vanity Fair, William Thackeray. Also looks long and boring.
  • Don Quixote, Miguel des Cervantes. Did anyone actually enjoy this novel?
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi. Someone told me the title is a lot more interesting than the book itself. Sounds plausible. I can’t bring myself to toss it.
  • The Longest Journey, E.M. Forster. Is this one of your bad novels, Forster? Is it? No one ever talks about it, so I’m guessing that it is.
  • Germinal, Emile Zola. Never read Zola; don’t even know what this is about; looks and sounds dry.
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy. I got over my Hardy phase when I was in high school.
  • North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell. I watched the great BBC adaptation of this with Emily, but that novel looks so dauntingly long. And I already know how it ends.

Have you read any of these? Are they worth changing my opinions about?

Books I have not read that I am supposed to have read

A List of Books I Should Have Read by Now, But I Am Either Too Lazy to Remember or Their Statute of Limitations of Interestingness Has Expired, and My Pertinent Excuses.

  1. Beowulf, Anon. I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I’m strong enough to wade back into the swamp that is pre-medieval literature to me. But Guion has Seamus Heaney’s translation, so maybe I will read it one day. Only for Heaney.
  2. Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, all those English history plays with the names of kings, Shakespeare. See also: Laziness.
  3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. Supposedly it’s 1,000 pages long. Who has that kind of stamina anymore? I’ve exhausted mine with Proust and the Russians.
  4. Vanity Fair, William Thackeray. It looks… so… long. Plus, Reese Witherspoon already ruined it for me. Boo.
  5. The Stranger, Albert Camus. I’m not really into existentialism right now.
  6. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu. There are about 596 reasons why I should have already read this book. First novel ever recorded! By a woman! A Japanese woman! But… why? I don’t have any legitimate excuses. I even own it. I just haven’t read it.
  7. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. A hundred people have told me to read this. That means I probably never will.
  8. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut has never sparked my curiosity, but I have no good reason why.
  9. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace. I’m actually planning on reading this after I finish all of In Search of Lost Time, so, three summers from now.
  10. Harry Potter. I know. This is a “statute of limitations” one. Just not interested.

How about you? Any books you “should” have read but probably won’t?