May Reads

This month, I finally broke my five-book rule, in part because I read some shorter books and also because I found myself bouncing between longer books. If you’ve missed any of my past months, you can find them here: January, February, March, and April.

The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh (Tin House)

They say a person has so unique a set of meanings we ought to be incapable of understanding each other, yet we speak and teach as if by magic.

I reviewed E.J. Koh’s incredible memoir for The Adroit Journal, and I’ll link it here when available. I highly recommend this tribute to mothers, language, and growth.

Read if you like: Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, analyzing your relationship with your parents, translation considerations

On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera, trans. Christina MacSweeney (Two Lines Press)

This month’s Book Cult pick for Deep Vellum Books, which I cohost with Cristina Rodriguez, is a cultural history of lighthouses that traces their existence throughout time, literature, and in the life of author Jazmina Barrera, who has collected extensive knowledge and stories about lighthouses both real and imagined. Barrera speaks of her collection like that with depth, wonder, and passion, considering the nature and practice of collecting beyond her own. On Lighthouses made me curious about my own collection of books, movies, and music, and so on, as I have an obsessive personality when it comes to the things I love. Our playlist, which I would file under the genre “nautical sadness,” is available here on Spotify, alongside past Book Cult playlists.

RIYL: Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, literary essays, this Believer essay on the world’s few remaining Voice-O-Graph collectors/preservers, staring at bodies of water with longing

Bookshelf by Lydia Pyne (Bloomsbury)

Barrera’s On Lighthouses put me in the mood to think more about collections, and luckily I had another book on that very idea. I’ve long been a fan of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, but I only recently learned about their Object Lessons series, short books on single objects. I was interested in Lydia Pyne’s Bookshelf because I have, well, quite a few bookshelves that I spend considerable time reorganizing and tinkering with. Pyne considers the history of bookshelves, from ancient times to digital libraries, and she argues that our shelves are not merely to store books but means of curating our identities, both for ourselves and others.

RIYL: staring at your bookshelf, reorganizing your bookshelf, not-so-casually staring at other people’s bookshelves when you’re in their home, looking at pictures of bookshelves online and wondering why yours doesn’t look as nice

The Plague by Albert Camus, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Vintage)

The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses.

As we continue to reorganize our lives around the new reality brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people pointed to Albert Camus’ The Plague as a timely read. I’m always curious about classic books speaking into the current moment, and The Plague was an astounding work of fiction that reveals the difficulties of reshaping our world around diseases that do not care for our plans. While the town of Oran first finds the plague that wreaks havoc on them an inconvenience, their doctor, Rieux, struggles to have the government take his warnings seriously. As the threat turns to daily tragedy, the “habit of despair” that the people endure replaces all other emotions, and the town has no time or energy to mourn the dead. I have not been so terrified by a book in my life. As each character decides how much they are willing to cede selfish interests for the good of others, Camus suggests that there are no saints—only people who choose common decency in the face of suffering. Written in 1948, Camus proves to be as profound as ever, and this will join the list of classics I think are worth our time.

RIYL: Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (one of my favorite philosophical works), Anthony B. Pinn’s Humanism: Essays on Race, Religion and Popular Culture(which deepened my appreciation for the former), existential dread

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith (Penguin)

My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you?

Zadie Smith’s wide-spanning collection of essays cover a range of topics, including the writing life, travel, books, movies, and art. To be honest, I skipped through some of the essays in this book, as I sometimes feel overwhelmed by writing about art and books that I have no knowledge of or interest in. But Smith gave readers permission from the first page to “feel free” to not be struck by the same subjects as her, so I did not feel too guilty, and in the lines quoted above I felt a kinship with Smith’s style, since everything I write is a matter of my being struck by a book or a movie or a song. Of the entire set, I particularly loved the essay about Get Out as a useful challenge to the controversial painting of Emmett Till by a white artist a few years ago, in that Smith argues not that the painting should not exist, but rather that we should get under each other’s skin more often to really problematize notions of race and artistry. Her essay about finally being moved by Joni Mitchell’s music also resonated deeply, as well as several others that will bring me back to Feel Free in the future.

RIYL: Emily Nussbaum’s I Like to Watch, Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Objects, Susan Sontag, cultural criticism

Garden by the Sea by Mercè Rodoreda, trans. Martha Tennent (Open Letter Books)

The day after my school year ended, I wanted to manifest summer energy, so I turned to Rodoreda’s rediscovered novel about a gardener in Spain who observes the lives of several rich friends every summer at the house where he tends to the garden. Set in the 1920s, Garden in the Sea struck me as akin to The Great Gatsby, if it were told by someone even more peripheral to the life of Jay Gatsby than Nick. The unnamed gardener observes every aspect of the friends’ lives, often tending to their grief and drama while seeking to remain somewhat invisible to them. Nevertheless, his life becomes wrapped like tendrils around theirs, and over the course of six summers, he shoulders everything and does not come out untouched.

RIYL: The Great Gatsby, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, wishing you lived in the house/garden of the Call Me by Your Name movie

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