January was a long time ago, I hardly remember it. The reading month started strong, buoyed by the carryover of a modern American classic from December. Things petered out a bit toward the end, but that’s only to be expected, given the start of the semester, which was a cluster from the get-go since we spent the first week online. (Remember when we still believed in covid?) In addition to the reading and teaching, I posted almost daily year end reading reflections from a talented group of readers and writers. Check those out if you haven’t already. Maybe I’ll still do one myself. In the meantime, here are my January reads:
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
What can I say that others haven’t? Titanic both in content and form, Invisible Man is a novel that doesn’t quite want to be a novel, or that wants to see to what limits novels can be pushed. Sometimes I admired the book more than I loved it; my literary preferences are more conservative than I might like to think. I was especially enthralled by the first third—I often like the childhood parts of books best, but this section has so many indelible scenes, especially one about a group of boys, including the unnamed narrator, who are brought to a southern town’s Whites Only Chamber of Commerce event to fight a cage match during which, stripped naked, they scramble to collect money thrown into the ring by the Pillars of the Community. From that electrifying (a word those who have read the book know I use advisedly) beginning, the narrator finds himself in the middle of the issues of the day, from his student days at an all-Black college which requires him to appease white benefactors (and the Black administrators who appease them) to his time in Harlem, where he joins The Brotherhood, an organization inspired by the ideals of Communism and challenged by white racism on the one hand and Black nationalism on the other. Throughout, the narrator remains enigmatic, refusing (or perhaps being refused, I can’t tell) the development we expect to find in a Bildungsroman.
When I said that Invisible Man was only uneasily a novel, I had in mind its essayistic elements, which are more pronounced in its second half. But as I think about it, where it chafes most against novelistic expectation is in its idea of what constitutes an event. It’s a book in which one character after another gives a speech. Whether in barroom yarns, sermons, or street preaching, Invisible Man is about rhetorical persuasion. What the novel itself wants to persuade us of is harder to say. I bet I could be more intelligent about this if I’d read Richard Wright, who Ellison seems to be arguing with throughout. (Is that right?) But one answer might be that the narrator speaks for many more Americans than just himself: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Not that there is no difference between Black and white experience, but that the former knows more than the latter, since its intelligibility must be measured through the tape of the other. But maybe that’s to make Ellison into Du Bois. Help me out here, fam.
How silly to say “a must read”—it is, tho.
I’m grateful to Jules and Anja, who read this with me and kept me on track.
Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (2019)
Brilliant sf novel—I think it’s a space opera, though I’m not really sure what that means—about the subaltern experience. Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the remote Lsel Station to the Teixcalaani Empire, arrives in the metropole to investigate the death of her predecessor, Yskandr. Like all officials from her home, Mahit has an “imago machine” implanted in her brain, containing the memories and reflections of the person who most recently held their post. But the machine malfunctions almost as soon as Mahit arrives in Teizcalaani, which means she loses the benefit of Yskandr’s insight—as well as possible clues to his death. Mahit’s investigation, which turns out to hinge on much larger political events, is exciting enough. But what makes the book so terrific is its worldbuilding. The Empire is so compellingly constructed, its system of intricate poetry so lovingly—but not boringly—detailed, its differences from Lsel so thoughtfully fleshed out. Mahit is a devotee of Teixicalaani culture; like many colonized subjects she knows it better than the colonizers themselves. Yet she can never be accepted by the Empire, she will always be a barbarian, will always feel “the dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen,” which is to say she lives in “a state of simultaneous gratitude and fury.”
Martine is the pen-name for a scholar of medieval Byzantine and Armenian history who is also a city planner and climate activist; some people really do seem to be able to do everything. Her erudition shows on every page of A Memory Called Empire, as she folds the problem of colonial identity into a meditation on how the technology of the imago machine challenges even more fundamental aspects of identity: lifespan, individuality, memory. Exhilarating.
Ross Gay, Be Holding (2020)
I’d never minded gym class in elementary school, it was fun and low-stakes, but then came junior high. Like everything else, gym class got worse. A lot worse. I’d never been bad at sports, but now I was terrible. The kid who loved school hated PE days. The kid who loved every teacher, was confronted by a new phenomenon: coaches. They were the worst—one was suspended for walking into the girls changing room, which I imagine took some doing back in the 80s—and they accordingly fostered a vicious and terrorizing atmosphere. I made it through but high school gym promised to be worse.
But the teacher my tenth-grade year (happily the last year PE was a required class) was Coach Bishop, who had been on the Canadian men’s basketball team. This was not a particularly big accomplishment back then, but he was genuinely athletic, unlike some of my previous PE teachers. Much more importantly, he was kind. He used the respect his accomplishments garnered him to keep the jocks from beating up on the nerds. (Nerd had yet to become a term of respect; it’s still weird to me that that happened.) Nerds still got picked last for teams, though; Coach Bishop was not enlightened enough to have done away with that practice. I don’t think I was ever the actually last one to be picked, but it was always a close thing. Until we came to the unit on basketball. This was a time when the rise of the NBA was permeating even solidly white western Canada—we had some kind of minor league team in Calgary called the 88s, after the Olympics, which my friends and I often went to see, tickets being practically free—and I often shot hoops on my own. I wouldn’t say I was good, but I wasn’t terrible.
Coach Bishop, unsurprisingly, was good at teaching basketball fundamentals. It was a long time before he let us even scrimmage. Because we’d spent so long working on layups, I knew what to do when, in our first game, I was able to pick off a lazy pass and go in all alone for an easy two points. This surprised everyone, me included, but not as much as what happened a few minutes later, when another kid—a jock!—passed me the ball. I stopped at the circle, jumped, and let loose a shot. Nothing but net. I still vividly remember Coach Bishop’s delighted cry: “He stops, he pops, it drops!” To have invested so much in this moment—to have needed that validation so badly—that I think of it thirty-five years later, oof, not awesome.
Next class the two alpha jocks, the captains, so surprise, were as usual in charge of picking teams. I went first. Me! I wasn’t great; not terrible, but now that kids were wise to me I had lost the element of surprise. Plus I always do better without any expectations. My moment passed. We moved on to some other sport and I went back to the end of the line. That was the end of my basketball career. When I think of that brief moment of success—when I look at myself as if watching a film—can I get past the shame I feel at how much that recognition from even people I did not respect (those jocks) meant to me? Can I avow the need to be seen? What life of privilege did I lead that the worst I can imagine happening to me when fixed by the gaze of the other is feeling ashamed?
Ross Gay’s long poem Be Holding is about basketball, sort of. It starts with a brilliant description of Dr. J’s baseline scoop in the 1980 NBA playoffs, a moment that readers, like Gay himself, who stays up too late at the mercy of the YouTube algorithm, will want to watch again and again. Gay is fascinated with how Irving holds the ball, in a swooping cradle that seemed to defy gravity. This is the first of the many instances of holding that comprise the book. Holding as stopping. Holding as enabling. Holding as comforting. What begins as an imperative—always be holding— turns into a warning. Be holding becomes beholding, a much more ambiguous proposition. Freezing the frame on a grainy sports video is one thing; looking intently at an image of suffering—a photo of a young African American boy falling from a burning tenement building, for example—is another. Can we look at others (behold) and care for them (hold)? How do African Americans, especially, traumatized by the middle passage, the rupture of a voyage in yet another hold, respond to this dilemma?
I’m not doing a good job with the details of Gay’s explosive, sinuous leaps and transitions. It’s been a while and I don’t have the book to hand. But I remember glorying in his close readings of images—the book’s a triumph of ekphrasis—and thrilling to his associative leaps, as bravura as Dr. J’s how-did-he-do-that scoop. So grateful to Rebecca for pointing me to this terrific book.
Seichō Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1961) Trans. Beth Carey (1989)
Japanese crime novel, quite famous, I gather. Maybe a new translation could help me get why; this one is painfully stilted. Not sure even that would save the book, though: it’s way too long—dude investigates every fucking detail—and not a patch on Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, which I read several years ago and still think of often. I only made it to the end because I was reading it aloud to my wife and we kept saying to each other, “Well, we’ve read this far…” We’re reading a book about sunk cost next.
Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1948) Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker (1957)
Tremendous novel about four sisters from an aristocratic Osaka family in the late 1930s. Filled with event—hard to know which set piece to single out: that extraordinary and terrifying flood, probably, which makes a similar scene in The Rainbow seem tame—but also leisurely, a little aimless, as if unwilling to commit to anything as definitive and perhaps crass as “action” or “plot.” Fittingly, the book repeatedly returns to the family’s attempt to marry off the third of the sisters, Yukiko, who is thirty and rapidly approaching irredeemable spinsterhood; she declines each laboriously contracted proposal, always finding some problem or other, most of which boil down to her almost Bartleby-like preferring not to.
I just couldn’t get enough of this book—it has all the feels, it considers a world at once accepting of and resistant to modernity, it has scope but is also modest. The last line is justly famous, and you should read Tom’s acute interpretation of it and its relation to Tanizaki’s depiction of violent and traumatic history. The guy wrote a lot of books; I should see what else he was up to. I’m guessing they are mostly not like this.
Last thing I’ll say: I’ve thought of The Makioka Sisters every day since reading it. That don’t happen too often.
Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2000)
I’ve written about this book so many times. It’s still great, in fact, it just keeps getting greater. Every year the students love it more; Kluger’s take-no-prisoners manner gets them where they live. Before long I won’t need to read it any more to teach it, but I’ll probably keep doing so, it’s that good.
S. A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland (2020)
Top-shelf Southern Noir, with enough suspense in the first half alone to merit your attention. It’s long (Cosby is not a minimalist), and it doesn’t balance action with characterization as well as the more recent Razorblade Tears but from the opening scene—late-night drag racing on the back roads of Virginia—you know you’re in the hands of a talent.
Emma Seppälä, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (2016)
Not my usual thing, and I pretty much hate-read it. I’d joined a reading group set up by our Associate Provost for Teaching and Learning (a psychologist, natch) in which participating faculty discussed the book with a student of their choice before we all met together. The best part of the exercise was working with my student—she is my mentee in the First Generation program at my college and an absolute delight—because she too was annoyed that Seppälä overestimates willpower and underappreciates how much privilege is demanded by her rhetoric of self-care. (I’m all for self-care, I just hate when it’s used to make people feel guilty that they have not done the impossible and avoided systemic problems.) Anyway, I learned a few things. Like the way we often think we’re relaxing when in fact we’re doing something mentally taxing. Scrolling through our social media feeds, for example, demands concentration, and leaves us more rather than less tired. So when we “take a short break” from some other task to check Twitter we’re still working, as far as our brain is concerned. Talking with colleagues and students did nothing to accelerate my success—whatever that means, ugh, management speak—but it made for a fun and, yes, happy hour or two.
Pretty good reading month, right? Tell me about books that are exactly like Makioka because that is what I want to read this summer. Which, now that I am caught up with these monthly posts, I might actually have time for…