Book Club — The Good, the Bad, and the Okay

by Melanie Jane Parker

The hottest summer on record has lent itself to long periods of sweaty inertia, and thus much reading has been accomplished. I am a firm believer in the subjectivity of my own literary perspective, so I am including everything I’ve read (not including periodicals) since the summer solstice in June 2016, in chronological order.

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Radical Chic + Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Tom Wolfe

Wolfe’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of the political love affair between white liberal aristocrats and black radicals in the 1960s. A strange, dissonant artifact. I grew weary of its cynicism.

 

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Citizen: An American Lyric + Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric — Claudia Rankine

Citizen is a book of prose poems about identity, race and racial violence, media representations of blackness, and police brutality. I read Citizen: An American Lyric, and went to see Claudia at Poets House, where she gave an elegant reading and answered questions with great acuity. Then I picked up Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and read it in one evening while babysitting. I’m less sure what it’s about, but I’ll venture to say it’s interested in states of isolation and alienation. I can’t decide which I like better, but that isn’t necessary.

 

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The Mezzanine — Nicholson Baker

Baker is the master of obsessive-compulsive attention to the banal. In the springtime I read Vox, a novella-length phone-sex conversation that sprawls to include more pedestrian topics of discussion. The Mezzanine is an oddly heartbreaking narrative of a young man’s life at the office that ends up feeling like an accidental philosophical treatise.

 

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Girls & Sex — Peggy Orenstein

A powerful illustration of contemporary adolescent sexuality. Even if you don’t know any teenagers anymore, this book helped me think of my own sexual development in a more nuanced way, and thus heightened my awareness of and compassion for what young people are up against today. Conservatism, mainstream media, rape culture, and institutionalized sexism all have a hand in shaping both girls’ and boys’ attitudes toward intimacy, and that doesn’t necessarily (but hopefully can and will) change as we age.

 

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The Fire Next Time — James Baldwin

James Baldwin was a genius beyond the bounds of time and space. This has always been an important book, but even more urgently relevant in the era of Black Lives Matter. I can’t bring myself to say anything significant that hasn’t already been said about Baldwin’s stunning prose, so I’ll give you this from chapter two, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind”: “I think that people can be better than that, and I know that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is. Anyway, the point here is that we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that American is the only Western nation with both the power and as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage. Any attempt we make to oppose these outbursts of energy is tantamount to signing our death warrant.”

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The Fifth Child — Doris Lessing

I enjoyed this on a turbulent flight from New York to Oregon, and while Doris Lessing is a literary master, this particular work of hers read like a high-quality airport thriller (in a good way). Set in 1960s England, a young bourgeois couple decide they’d rather not engage with the sweeping unrest that characterizes the world at that particular moment. Their answer to social and political upheaval is protective domesticity: buy a house and have many children. Unfortunately, the fifth pregnancy is hellish, resulting in a fifth child who appears to embody all the chaos, unpredictability, and violence of the world beyond their fortress.

 

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The Vegetarian — Han Kang

A housewife stops eating meat after having a disturbing dream. The first chapter is narrated by her terrible husband, the second chapter by her creative and tormented brother-in-law, and the third by her sister. I would like someone I know to read this so we can hash it out together; I’m still not sure what to make of it.

 

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Freedom is a Constant Struggle — Angela Davis

I read this compilation of interviews and talks while on a semi-silent retreat in the Oregon woods, and so I was able to hear Davis’s convictions and ideas all the more clearly. She makes connections and weaves context with such depth, which comes from decades of global engagement and activism. What I have always appreciated about Davis is her matter-of-factedness, her unflinching gaze toward reality: what has been, what is, and what could be.

 

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Where I Was From — Joan Didion

Didion at her best, showing this reader how to make a sturdy narrative nest of history, politics, myth, economics, nature, industry, family, love, and identity. If you have any interest in how the California of our collective imagination was crafted, consider this essential source material.

 

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I’m Very Into You — Kathy Acker & MacKenzie Wark

A series of emails between writers Kathy Acker and MacKenzie Wark, exchanged over a two-week period in the infancy of the Internet. These read like earnest yet bashful high school love notes or lengthy, sustained AIM chats, though far more culturally astute and sexually sophisticated.

 

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Madness, Rack, and Honey — Mary Ruefle

Perhaps the nerdiest selection on this list, Madness, Rack, and Honey is a collection of brilliant lectures given by poet Mary Ruefle. Like many of my favorite writers (Sebald, Carson, Nelson), Ruefle works radially: she establishes a clear and discernible core before moving in many unexpected directions, all of which make sense, all of which are supported by and feed back to the core. The effect is thrilling. I took my time with this one. My copy, once pristine, is now underlined and annotated and tattered.

 

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Agnes Martin and Me — Donald Woodman

A bizarre memoir of Woodman’s seven-year “friendship” with artist Agnes Martin, during which he apparently vacillated between barely seeing her, understanding her, or liking her, and embarking on intense, tumultuous adventures with her (buying land outside of Santa Fe, building a modest compound, naively trekking into the Northwest Territories). The book turns out to be more of a psychological portrait of its author than its supposed subject. There were moments when I felt embarrassed to be reading it, as it frequently slides into the tone and territory of gossip about a brilliant, curmudgeonly, mentally ill woman who is now dead and cannot come to her own defense. Worse is that Woodman seems to be making the argument that the enduring cultural acceptance of Martin as a sage-like visionary and the reality of her mental illness are mutually exclusive, as if one cannot be bipolar, schizophrenic, and full of insight and wisdom. He insists on deciding between, Agnes was a great artist because of, or Agnes was a great artist in spite of. I come away from Agnes Martin and Me believing Agnes was a great artist and.

 

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The Summer Book — Tove Jansson

Possibly my favorite on this list. Six-year-old Sophia spends the summer with her father and grandmother on their family island. Her mother has recently died, though we’re never told exactly when or how, and the father is mostly absent from the story. She and her grandmother, whose memory is beginning to dull around the edges, understand one another in a lovingly antagonistic way. Their ramblings on and around the island are described in such crisp, clear language that it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for all the childhoods you never had.

 

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When Watched — Leopoldine Core

In 2011 I participated in a small reading at a Greenpoint bar with three other women, one of whom was Leopoldine Core. I presented a short story that I would now like expunged from my digital and print archives, as well as from my memory. I mostly went because I wanted to hear Leopoldine read. I knew of her as a writer and as the then- girlfriend of Eileen Myles, one of our most important poets. I have been waiting to read a collection of her work since that evening. At long last it has arrived. It’s all the things I wanted it to be—snarky, irreverent, melancholy, confident, beautiful—and it’s things I didn’t see coming—pained, vulnerable, joyful, wise.

 

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The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — Janet Malcolm

Janet Malcolm is one of our finest journalists, not to mention one of our fairest. This book is all about the ethics of biography and the limitations of “telling a life.” She takes a wide view of the Plath vs. Hughes controversy and the mythology at its root, and is transparent about her own process of investigation. Published in 1994 when Hughes was still alive, The Silent Woman is oddly relevant in our current climate of truthiness.

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