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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

February Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

This 1943 debut novel by Filipino American poet Carlos Bulosan is the autobiographical account of one man’s immigration to America in the during the first half of the twentieth century. Split into four sections, the novel begins Bulosan’s childhood growing up Binalonan, Pangasinan. The youngest son of a very poor family of farmers, Carlos’s early life teems hardship, poverty, and unspeakable tragedy. In his adolescence, he saves up enough money to emigrate from his home to America, arriving first in Seattle before being shipped up to Alaska to work in the fish canneries. Once back on the mainland, Carlos, nearly penniless, travels down the coast via freight trains, stopping in various cities and searching for his brothers who had come over before he. It in these various towns that Carlos witnesses first-hand the brutal racism against Asian-Americans, often getting fights, arrested, and at one time, even tortured by the police. He also experiences the awful living conditions which Asian-Americans must endure, all the while he looks for his brothers and for work. Eventually settling in Los Angeles, Carlos begins to read and write, finding in himself a passion which in turn spurs his ambition for social reform. He forms a labor union, and just as the movement is about to take off, Carlos comes down with tuberculosis and spends the next three years in a hospital bed. Emerging after a near-death, Carlos picks up the reins again, seeking with unrelenting determination to enact change in the American world for the betterment of Asian-American immigrants.

It’s considered one of the most significant works of Asian-American immigrant literature and has been described as a “social classic.” The novel paints in searing detail the unbelievable hardships that faced the Asian-American immigrant and migrant workers during the 1930’s and ‘40’s, a time in American history where racism against Asians was not only prevalent but enforced by policy and legislature. And the challenges depicted in Bulosan’s novel are truly despicable–savage violence and iniquity; widespread prejudice and discrimination; and little-to-no hope for escape. The dream which drove Bulosan to America is met with tragedy upon tragedy; and it’s the clash between American idealism and forced pragmatism which I found most striking about the novel–how Bulosan is able to endure the worst obstacles and still hold onto a dream for his new home and new life. Also, the novel is written exquisitely–a poetic economy of words, vivid description, and critical perspective the world, all interspersed with commentary, flashbacks, and a philosophy for social reform. This novel absolutely floored me; I read its 372 pages in a span of four days, unable to put it down, at times coming close to tears. The book is revolutionary not only in its content–a life story of a man whose experiences American history has striven to exile–but the form as well, Bulosan’s straying from conventional narrative mode and producing an early example of auto-fiction. While violence, racism, and tragedy pour from the pages, so too do hope, ambition, and love–an absolutely incredible reading experience.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This 1930 fifth novel by American writer William Faulkner is the harrowing saga of the Bundren family. Set in post-Civil War, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, Addie Bundren, the matriarch of the family, is on her deathbed; her son Cash is building her coffin outside her bedroom window, and the rest of the family prepares to carry her body after her imminent death forty miles to the town of Jefferson to bury Addie in the cemetery where her family are buried. The Bundrens–Anse and Addie, their children, Cash, Jewel, Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman–are poor and live secluded in the Mississippi wilderness, their closest neighbors, the Tulls, living eight miles away. After Addie’s death, the challenges have only just begun–carting her body in the box aboard a horse-driven cart, the family sets off, facing rain and flash floods, an overflowed river to traverse, serious injury, and even arson. And all the while, Dewey Dell, the only Bundren daughter, has a secret which she can reveal to no one. It is a modern Odyssean epic of the Southern Gothic genre, one in which religion, values, family, life, and death are all thrown into peril.

I first read As I Lay Dying two years ago, my first introduction to Faulkner’s novels, and I remember being absolutely stunned, however, at times puzzled by its difficulty. As most know, the novel has fifteen different narrators, all events and thoughts filtered through the cast of characters. Upon second reading in tandem with in-class discussions, all the hidden intricacies and beauties which has evaded me the first time became clear. Each short section popped from the pages, the characters living (and dying) as if in the real world, unconfined to fiction. This novel is an absolute modernist monument of content and form. Faulkner weaves together the story of Bundrens with virtuosic authorship. Buried within his terse yet invigoratingly vivid prose are countless, repeated themes–sight and perspectives; fabrication and production; metaphysics of time and memory; religion and fate; language and knowledge; honor and promises; family values; and, of course, life and death. As I annotated as I read, each page of my copy is completely littered with inky underlines and words scribbled into the margins. For weeks this book stayed with me, occupying my thoughts, and understanding of literature and even life itself. It is a challenging novel but one of the most rewarding and truly beautiful that I have ever read, certainly within my top ten of all time, and one that I will read again and again throughout my life.

Dubliners by James Joyce

This 1915 debut book by Irish author and modernist pioneer James Joyce is a collection of fifteen short stories, all of which are set in Dublin, Ireland during the early twentieth century. The stories are arranged chronologically by the age of the protagonists. The first one, “The Sisters,” follows a young boy grappling with the death of a priest; “Araby” centers on a tween whose infatuations with a friend’s sister drives him to contemplate the clash between ideal and real; in “Two Gallants,” two young men wander through the streets of Dublin talking about life and romantic interests before one of them attempts to swindle a maid whom he know; “A Little Cloud” follows a recent father whose thwarted dreams of becoming a writer are unearthed by a visit with an old friend; “A Painful Case” depicts the a man’s coping with a relationship-that-could’ve-been at the news that an old friend has died; and in the final and most famous of the stories, “The Dead,” a holiday party sends a middle-aged man into a rumination on life and death, nation and politics, love and loss, and reality versus expectations, with all the complexities of human relations.

A composite novel of sorts, each story works to paint Joyce’s scathing vision of Dublin during the early twentieth century, a time and place teeming with thwarted dreams, hindered opportunities, and the clash between convention and a burgeoning modernity. In these stories, Joyce introduces one of the literary devices for which he is famous for: the Joycean epiphany. Each story sees a character grapple with a certain revelation of sorts–most of which are painful realizations that impact the character and propel the conclusion into new heights. Religion, love, idealism, and nationalism all see their thematic place among these epiphanies, which, in turn, have inspired countless criticism and conversation. The most accessible of his work, Joyce’s prose in Dubliners is meticulously precise, beautifully descriptive, and structured with a blend of direct narration and free indirect style. Also, his ability to craft conversations is truly astounding, as the pauses between the words, the things unsaid, seem to contain as much, if not more, than the words which are uttered. It is a brilliant collection of short stories, filled to the brim with nuance, questions, and contemplations of a litany of different subjects. It is a book that helped cement Joyce’s name in the Western canon and one that I will certainly revisit time and time again.

This Wound Is a World by Billy-Ray Belcourt

This 2017 debut collection of poetry by Cree Nation poet Billy-Ray Belcourt is equal parts memoir and manifesto, encapsulating the Indigenous experience in the twenty-first century. There are fifty-three poems in total, each of varying lengths: some only a few stanzas of short lines, others comprised of lists, and others spanning multiple pages. Each poem contains a life of its own–a life abundant with the complexities, obstacles, and philosophies that comprise a unique experience. Dancing amid the stanzas are subjects such as love, sex, intimacy, relationships, and community, as well as prejudice, oppression, colonialism, and intergenerational trauma. Belcourt wields words like a weapon, cutting deep into the prevailing assumptions and subverting narratives, and in doing so, paints a beautiful portrait of a community which colonization, across history, has threaten to all but extinguish.

The collection won both the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize and the 2018 Indigenous Voices Award and was also shortlisted for both the 2018 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the 2018 Raymond Souster Award–all of which are among some of the prestigious Canadian awards for poetry. And indeed, this collection is well-deserving of the praise. Each poem packs a serious punch; Belcourt demands engagement from the first line, stripping away preconceived notions and rebuilding the stories and lives of the Indigenous. In particular, Belcourt uses bodily imagery to deconstruct–both the physical and symbolic–connotations of love, and in turn, inspires a new discourse on decolonial love. In the epilogue, Belcourt writes, “love…that which feels like can rupture the ground beneath us…is a process of becoming unbodied [and] This Wound Is a World is a book obsessed with the unbodied.” Emotion, intimacy, pain, and love seep through the pages, confronting the reader to reconsider all understanding of some of most universal of subjects. And how Belcourt, with his critical eye, brilliant insight, and virtuosic command of language, weaves such subjects together so beautifully and powerfully is truly an astonishment.

Cane by Jean Toomer

This 1923 debut novel by American writer Jean Toomer is a composite novel of vignettes and short stories, each singularly and collectively portraying the experiences of African Americans during the turn of the twentieth century. Punctuated by brief and poetic short pieces, longer sections paint a range of different stories: a woman coming of age recognizes the threat of leering old men; a white woman and her two adopted black sons are exiled from the local village; a Northern man falls in love with a southern lady and tries to save from her home; a young woman is stunned by a charismatic preacher and eventually seeks him out; violence ensues between a black man and a white man pursuing the same woman; a college student becomes infatuated with an unlikely coed; a dancer tries to seduce an enigmatic patron; and so much more. Each segment of the novel tackles subjects and tensions which spill into and recur throughout the succeeding sections, converging and culminating in the longest section, “Kabnis,” an autobiographical story structurally resembling a play.

Often considered a formative modernist work from the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is undoubtedly an engaging novel, both in content and form. Running rampant through the stories and vignettes are themes such as: the legacy and trauma of slavery; the resilience of the body, both corporeally and symbolically; the reverberating tensions between the North and the South; misogyny and, in particular, misogynoir; heritage, history, and dignity; and communion, a theme which is reflected in the circularity of narratives. But what was most striking to me, and most enjoyable to read, are the instance of musical depiction–music and sound play a large role in the novel and are a source of formal experimentation. Stream-of-consciousness, free association, and poetical play permeate the prose–scenes moving fluidly, themes echoing across sections, and words moving melodiously like notes of a staff, comprising the composition that is the novel. Voices are a polyphony in Cane, resounding across time and place, converging into a chorus to portray the singular and collective experience of African-Americans at one of the formative times in American history.

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

This 1933 debut novel by American writer Nathanael West is a bleak portrait of suffering and the search for redemption during the Great Depression. Set in New York City just after the Crash of ’29, the novel follows the eponymous Miss Lonelyhearts, a newspaper reporter who writes an advice column answering countless letters from New Yorkers seeking help and guidance for their innumerable challenges–a wife and mother trapped in a marriage of emotional and physical pain looks for any glimpse of hope; a sixteen-year-old girl born without a nose wishes to lead a normal life; a wife suffering financial ruin strives to escape her psychopathic husband; and many more. Reading the awful letters and attempting to think up answers to the countless unanswerable questions begins to take a toll on Miss Lonelyhearts–a toll made further worse by his boss, the blunt, unapologetic, cynical Shrike. Miss Lonelyhearts turns towards religion, sex, and alcohol to reprieve his misery, but as the story unfolds, he slips deeper and deeper into depression, turning cold and impenetrably numb. Shrike, remaining always the boisterous beacon of sardonic sophistry, tries to sway Miss Lonelyhearts, but his attempts fall in vain in the face of despair’s fomented descent, one which ends in a shocking conclusion.

Influential literary critic Harold Bloom, in his introduction to the novel, writes, “My favorite work of modern American prose fiction is Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts,” an attestation to the sheer magnitude of this short novel. And indeed, this short novel is almost certainly a contender for my top ten of the year. It is a book about and of the Great Depression, and a book about and of great depression–of the mind, of the body, of the spirit, and of the world. Bleakness, misery, and suffering pour in torrents throughout the novel, meagerly bulwarked by short-lived instances of joy and contentment, and dammed with the diaphanous guise of virtue. Christian allegory underscores the narrative–Miss Lonelyhearts a symbolic Christ; Shrike a devious Satan; and yet, each religious reflection is cracked with holy subversions running the length of the novel and culminating in a scathing critique of modernity, morality, and meaning in life. And West’s prose–tersely economical with razor-edge precision–embodies the stinging, stabbing despair which themes its content. Like Faulkner’s, the novel teems with symbolic imagery: the earth, rocks, dirt, and ocean, waves, water, all clash against the “forced rock” of buildings, cities, and modernity; sex and the body blend with religious allusions in a parodic Whitmanian mergence; birds, brooding, brutality bounce about throughout; and the idea of escape drives a thread which twists and turns into an epiphanic perversion by the end of the short book. And indeed, it is short, spanning less than 150 pages, yet with the breadth and depth of an ocean. Its length belies its substance; it’s a novel that even upon first reading, I know will have more and more to offer with each reread. It is a dark and beautiful masterpiece; one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century.

Dear Knausgaard by Kim Adrian

This 2020 fourth book by American literary critic Kim Adrian is a work of lyrical criticism on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s magnum opus My Struggle. In twenty-five letters, all date-stamped and addressed “Dear Mr. Knausgaard,” Adrian describes her history reading the six books, as well as the four volumes comprising his Seasons Quartet, detailing why the books have stuck with her over time, and the countless conversations which the books have inspired among her literary friends. From her initial introduction, seeing Knausgaard’s cowering countenance emblazoned across the book covers, to the lauding reviews and critical praise of the work, to her falling deep into his words, vicariously living his life, experiencing his experiences, all the while attempting to identify that mysterious something which makes the books so everlasting and brilliant, to the writer’s conference in Iceland where Adrian attended a reader by the man himself. Each letter is structured in the same vein of Knausgaard’s work–composed of the quotidian, mundane details of the everyday, the subtleties of life which inspire grand contemplations and ruminations from which grow connections theretofore unnoticed. And these connections she explores all inevitably connect back to Knausgaard’s work. It is a short book in praise, in conversation, and in criticism of one of my all-time favorite works of contemporary literature by one of my favorite contemporary writers.

It’s a relatively short, easily accessible yet deeply intellectual, and beautifully written work of criticism. Adrian draws on her own experiences with the novel–reading at home, on vacations, with friends and family, all of whom impart their own unique perspectives on Knausgaard’s work which in turn, influences Adrian’s own contemplation–blending autobiography and criticism in a wondrously confounding short work. She cites important passages from the books, applying keen analysis and sewing insightful threads to other works of literature, criticism, and even psychology. And, with her critical eye, she expounds the problems which arise in certain sections of his work, the big one being internalized misogyny. Adrian never wavers in her analysis, never bats an eye to the commonly unnoticed instances, even focusing on the smallest word or phrase and painting the implications in such diction. And Adrian makes references to many other fantastic works of literature and criticism, many of which I was not privy to, but now have many more on my to-read list. It was such an insightful, enjoyable, and significant work of lyrical criticism; and a feminist critique of Knausgaard has long been overdue.

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