Spend the bittersweet last weeks of summer checking out these literary digs.
You can hear Sally Mann’s husky drawl all throughout Hold Still. Mann studied writing before becoming a working photographer, and it’s clear this memoir is something of a literary homecoming. The stories she spins around her art, her heritage, her marriage, her children, and her southern landscape, are embroidered with a deep sense of love—a love so convincing, in fact, that I made a point of visiting Mann’s home of Lexington, Virginia, on the Fourth of July. The little city was awash in patriotic regalia; it was easy to imagine Mann and her late friend Cy Twombly ambling down the wide, friendly streets.
Marie Howe was the 2012-2014 Poet Laureate of New York State, which is but one reason why you should get to know her work. Another reason is that Howe does what so many New Age self-help books try and fail to do: she unsentimentally articulates painfully slender moments of radical awareness, thereby bringing the reader closer to her own experiences of impermanence. But these poems provide a kind of foothold, a way of making the fleetingly beautiful a bit more tangible. Take “The Gate”:
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet
rinsed every glass he would ever since under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
In a rare interview published in The Paris Review, Elena Ferrante states, “Writers should be concerned only with narrating what they know and feel—beautiful, ugly, or contradictory— without succumbing to ideological conformity or blind adherence to a canon. Writing requires maximum ambition, maximum audacity, and programmatic disobedience.” Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, which will find its completion with the September 1 release of The Story of the Lost Child, is all of these things (ambitious, audacious, disobedient), not to mention visceral and devastating. The first book, My Brilliant Friend, introduces us to best friends Elena and Lila, and the concentric circles of family, friends, neighbors, enemies, and ghosts that surround them. All the seeds of a sprawling drama, sowed so deftly in book one, continue to surge and propagate throughout The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (books two and three, respectively). Class and gender, social convention and self-determination, loss and desire, the symbolic and the real, the intellectual and the psycho-spiritual, the mundane and the mystical—it’s all there. In the same interview, Ferrante says, “I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction, women’s literature—they made me an adult.” Lucky for me that the advent of Ferrante’s rage-cage writing should coincide with my colorful and convoluted Saturn’s return; Ferrante has become one of the “many gendered-mothers of my heart” (to borrow a phrase coined by Dana Ward and referenced by Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts—this is what you call “literary double-dipping”). Her renderings of the world come across as collisions, all possible violence included, meaning they distort, reshape, transform, much like an education, or aging.
My Antonia is high school reading worth revisiting. Cather’s rich illustration of early 20th-century Nebraska prairie life is by turns brutal and sultry. The narrative, delivered by one Jim Burden, revolves around brilliant and resilient Antonia, but it also chronicles the life of a community — birth, friendship, love, work, death, poverty, and prosperity. The most satisfying thing about this novel, for me, is the emphasis placed on 1. the relationship between human bodies, animal bodies, and the land; 2. the lives of laborers and homesteaders.