July Grace Notes
One thing that we hear repeatedly from many customers the past couple of months is that they are having a hard time focusing on reading. Maybe it’s the underlying stress of living in uncertain times, maybe it’s the lack of structure and the ennui inherent in having an entire day yawning in front of you with no social commitments.
This month, I’m going to focus on collections of essays and short stories - books that you can dip in and out of without having to make the commitment of investing in a long narrative. One of my favorite recent reads is Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by British culture critic Olivia Laing. I became hooked on Laing’s writing after reading her elegant 2017 release Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone.
Funny Weather is a collection of short essays that comment on the important role that art plays in turbulent times. She profiles such disparate artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Rauschenberg, Georgia O’Keeffe, and David Wojnarowicz. Her premise is that art is not just an idle pastime, an entertainment for the elite, but that it can serve as a force of resistance, speaking truth to power.
She highlights the work of writers Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith, and offers up reviews of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus, Normal People by Sally Rooney, among others. She writes what she calls “Love Letters” to musicians Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Arthur Russell.
In her essay “Two Figures in the Grass,” she discusses queer British art in the 20th century. The peril in which artists put themselves during this time in order to express themselves sometimes literally cost them their lives. “The work is what’s left, both record and dream;” writes Laing, “the lovely fruit of bitterly constrained lives….”
Laing’s writing beautifully treads the line between cool commentary and fangirl ardor. Restrained yet passionate, it’s the perfect antidote for a quarantine-induced reading slump.
Here are some more great collections of essays and short stories to whet your appetite -
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah - Adjei-Brenyah examines issues of racial injustice in this collection of inventive stories that challenge the reader to reexamine their worldview. Fans of George Saunders and Colson Whitehead will find much to enjoy here.
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole - The author of Open City discusses art, literature, politics, and race in this rich collection of essays. Deeply intelligent and wide-ranging in its scope, the book contains over fifty of Cole’s evocative essays.
How Long ’Til Black Future Month by N. K. Jemisin - Multi-Hugo Award-winning author Jemisin explores alternative realities in the past, present, and future, touching on subjects such as hurricanes, dragons, utopias, and the Jim Crow South. There are stories here to satisfy even the most jaded sci-fi reader.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer - One of my favorite books of the last few years, this collection of nature essays takes a deep dive into the natural world, combining scientific rigor with Native wisdom.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado - All debuts should be this strong. Machado’s stories combine fantasy, folklore, feminism, and magical realism in a stew rich with sharp writing and dark humor.
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami - The seven stories in this collection examine the ways that men cope with loneliness. Murakami’s trademark light touch and sharp wit imbue each story with a sense of deceptively deep pathos.
Coming in August - Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald
If you were one of the many people who were entranced by H is for Hawk, you will love Helen Macdonald’s new collection of essays. Macdonald goes further afield in this book, but stays firmly rooted in nature in all of its complex glory. Besides the expected essays on birds (in this one she branches out to ostriches, swifts, and cranes), she covers topics as diverse as boars, religion, and radio static. Much of it reads as prose poetry, written with a deep sense of yearning for connection with the wild. And if you’re looking for a laugh, look no further than her short piece on pushing goats.
Poem of the Month -
Torso of Air
Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than.
a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke
& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful
& gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve
until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, at last,
on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—
~ Ocean Vuong