22 March, 2022

Four Books I Spent My Spring Reading

A lifelong bookworm, it's become my pattern in recent years to forego reading in favor of tending to the business of life. Still, somewhere between Buddhist practice, Gavel Club responsibilities, work hours, researching and writing a suicide-prevention video, sleep, essays and blog posts, personal correspondence, and keeping up with the periodicals that I subscribe to, I manage to carve out a little time for reading books of all sorts.

It might be easy to assume that poetry, given its short form, could squeeze in whenever a busy person like myself could spare five minutes. Maybe they're right. Maybe I just give poems too much elbow room. When I read a poem, I never stop after its first read-through. I usually give it three or more reads, two of them very slow, to peel away the layers and gain a better understanding. Cultivating the right mood for the experience helps with my comprehension and appreciation of the work.

Like otherworldly spirits, the poems of Belarusian poet Valzhynia Mort rose with grim faces from her recent English collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, to meet me. This was the first poetry collection I'd read in a while. It came as a gracious gift from Emily C., and it didn't disappoint. Mort writes with what feels like the collective grief of her family's last three generations. With this collection she seemingly becomes a poetic planchette that her ancestors use to spell messages from beyond the grave. Several times Mort (what a fitting name!) summons the voice of a deceased relative to relate a wartime anecdote. Her poems read like lived history through a dark lens. While my inept description makes them sound ghoulish, the poems in Music for the Dead and Resurrected are in fact hauntingly tender, a beautiful requiem for those who've gone before.

Poetry elevates and enlarges my life, but sci-fi is one of my truly great loves. Jeff VanderMeer's Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy is sci-fi of the finest sort. A strange phenomenon has taken over a small region of coastal land in what might be Florida, exterminating all human life while allowing animals and plants to flourish. An organization known as the Southern Reach sends in periodic research missions. Partly because all of them result in death or madness, I was reminded of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, especially those tying in with his Cthulhu mythos. Make no mistake, Area X is dark. The jacket copy calls it "almost unbearably suspenseful," which is 100% true. At many times I just wanted it to be over – not because it wasn't any good but because VanderMeer delights the reader with revelations while withholding even more. I desperately wanted answers; I got some.

My friend and coworker Paul had seen the movie based on Area X's first book, Annihilation. After I loaned him my copy of the trilogy he maintained a vision of Natalie Portman as the twelfth mission's biologist until the story took a particular, very dark turn. "I can't help thinking of her eyes!" he said, after he read one particularly haunting chapter. We got a lot of enthusiastic discussions about how crazy effective we found VanderMeer's storytelling, about terrestrial life forms, and about the absence of attention to the natural environment in most science fiction.

If sci-fi is one of my greatest loves, fantasy was one of my first. I still turn to the genre, usually when drudgery stupefies my day-to-day. A couple of story collections sent from a stranger, Jordan S., served as tonic during a recent slog. I don't know why you chose these particular books from my wish list, Jordan, both with their beastly titles, but thank you.

The first of them was North American Lake Monsters: Stories, by Nathan Ballingrud. Hulu subscribers might recognize this title from the credits of a show called Monsterland. I've never seen it. A positive review from a trusted source attracted me to the book, which turns the monster story on its head by shifting the focus from creatures to the people whose lives are affected by them. In the title story a former prisoner finds himself unable to relate to his edgy thirteen-year-old daughter, especially in light of her reaction when a huge slimy thing beaches itself on the shore near their cabin. In "The Monster of Heaven," a couple's rocky married life slips further into dysfunction when they place a sickly, mute humanoid creature in their dead son's bedroom. Ballingrud's are basically stories about human life and its messiness, with the occasional werewolf. I think the collection's a bit hit-and-miss, but the not-great stories aren't bad and the good stories are quite good – an overall win.

The other book Jordan sent was Fierce Creatures, a harrowing collection by Brandon Taylor. While not fantastical in any way, these heavily physical stories of everyday people occupy significant mental space – that is, psychological territory – to an almost overwhelming degree. Conversations between lovers, parents, and family members turn on a dime, and characters' minds rattle and shudder like a wooden roller coaster. Everyone in Fierce Creatures seems uncertain, unstable. I'll just say that if Taylor's noteworthy fictions represent what interactions are like for real-life neurotypical people, I'm relieved to have the brain that I do.

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