Reading Recs

Essays, stories, poems, and other things that Becky admires.

Reading Rec: Not Your Job by Norika Nakada

xrayI’ve read “Not Your Job” by Noriko Nakada multiple times now, which is highly unusual for a person like me who believes poetry is meant to be heard. But there’s something magnetic about the way Nakada shares a specific, personal moment between herself and her daughter while simultaneously capturing the universal experience of parenthood, particularly its fierce love.

The poem also touches on weighty societal issues – the power of gender stereotypes, the pressure to be beautiful, the importance of a face – without straying from the story at its core. Line breaks and white space create an intriguing, physical shape out of the words themselves that only adds to the poem’s magnetism. Highly recommended for those who enjoy how a few choice words can send a brain mulling all day long.

Poem and photo originally appeared in Mutha Magazine on December 11, 2018.

Seriously, If I Log Out, You Won’t Forget, Right.

This week’s events got me thinking about the ways in which we communicate with one other. Social media and the Internet in general can be great resources that we should be using, but they too often take the place of important face-to-face interactions that are necessary if we’re going to make any real change in this country. Here is poet P.K. Harmon’s meditation on the topic.

Untitled
By: P.K. Harmon

Do you ever yes.
Do you ever want
to let invented words
to score on Words
with Friends. Yes.
Do you ever log out.
I don’t. I mean, Yes.

My son, or maybe me,
turns his face to the
book. You know what
I mean. Seriously, if
I log out you won’t

forget, right. Right
now I am writing
a life and it’s the only
reason. Yes. Yes.
It’s like we are chatting.
You. We. Are you
online what time is it

there there. It’s ok.
There you are, ok.
I can’t like what
you share enough.
Enough to keep me
though I am no where.
Do you. I guess I do too.

logout

My Summer Reading Recs

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Guys, I have good news – my reading bug is back! It wasn’t that having a baby necessarily killed my reading bug – I still very much wanted to read – but more like having a baby made my brain so full and tired that it was impossible to read. My eyes felt sticky and glazed over, I’d fall asleep before even finishing a page, and if I somehow did make it farther than that, I’d have no idea what was going on and no patience to reread. In response, I turned to the more manageable length of short stories, but I really missed reading novels. As author Lorrie Moore says, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” Sure, love affairs are fun, but I’d been happily married to literature for decades when we were suddenly thrust into an unavoidable and sad period of separation. But then, a year after returning to work as a new mom, something clicked; I picked up a hardback my friend had given me, tore through it, picked up the next one, and kept going.

So now, six months later, with sunny beach days right around the corner, I’m filled with joy and pride to give you my summer reading recs. And please share yours with me – I have two bug-less summers to make up for!

5. The Girls by Emma Cline – C+
This book has all the summer trash – sex, murder, drugs, rock-n-roll – but there are some real trigger warnings surrounding rape, so beware. I picked this one up because of its hype: a debut novel by a female writer in her 20’s that quickly became a New York Times best seller but was also heralded as a beautifully written novel. And yes, there are many gorgeous sentences here. But for me, the language actually got in the way of the story. Definitely an interesting choice to pair gorgeous, flowing descriptions with an honest, ugly look at teenage girls getting sucked into a cult (loosely based on the Mansons), but I was overall glad I read it – the story especially shines when we get inside the main character’s painfully realistic, confused little head. James Wood gives a much more thorough review here in The New Yorker.

4. You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein – B-
This book is brutally hilarious, often self-deprecating in a way that leaves you feeling like Klein is now a strong, confident woman with that rare ability to make fun of herself without getting down about it. As a celebrated female in the male-dominated comedy industry, she offers readers an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look complete with running commentary that doesn’t back down ever; this openness is welcome and brave and definitely drives the novel. Mixed in with the laughs are some deep reflections on our patriarchal society, revelations that most women will appreciate but then will also appreciate the comic relief that follows. However, while Klein’s voice is strong, consistent and easy to access, it’s clear that she writes sketch comedies, not books; the individual sentences are lacking, the flow is choppy, and the overall structure feels forced. There’s even one anecdote repeated in the last few chapters. Still, a fun and thought-provoking ride.

3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – B+
I reread this novella for a Capote semester I taught last fall and fell in love with it all over again. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, don’t be put off by the Hollywood ending; there are a handful of major differences between the two, and the book is definitely more rooted in reality. Absolutely gorgeous writing (as always from Capote), a smart and breezy plot filled with New York fun and a touch of darkness, plus one of the most delightful, complicated characters in American literature. Also, only 100 pages.

If you haven’t read In Cold Blood yet, it’s not a traditional summer read but is absolutely stunning, and also the progenitor of the true crime genre – a must-read (or reread!) at some point, though perhaps a better fit for the winter.

2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – A-
Everything Ann Patchett writes is gold. Just beautiful, easy to read yet highly intelligent, carefully constructed sentences throughout all of her novels. Commonwealth tells the story of a nontraditional family as they grow from rascals in California to adults spread out all over the world. There’s some darkness here, but it never gets too heavy. While not as impressive as Bel Canto or as deep at The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth masterfully treats a large family unit as the main character, jumping through time and switching points of view to give us a thoughtful and enjoyable reflection on love, loss and growth.

5. My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – A
These books are amazing. I’m on the third right now and CANNOT GET ENOUGH. The characters are so real and distinct and easy-to-love despite their many faults. The depth and complexity of female friendship is at the root of these novels, but Ferrante weaves so many other characters (including the towns and cities which, through her vivid descriptions, feel like characters themselves) in and out with such ease that the overall plot never feels stuck on the two leading ladies. In fact, everything always feels like it’s moving somewhere, even when the characters are sitting still, which brings me to the most dazzling aspect of these novels: Ferrante’s musical writing style. I literally get the rhythm of her sentences stuck in my head like a pop song.

“Too Black, Too Strong…”

Jeffery Renard Allen’sjeffrenardallen most recent essay is stunning. Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter is a powerful and important must-read that masterfully combines thoughtful commentary on race, politics, and economics with well-researched, academic analysis and haunting personal narrative. It’s long yet I found myself rereading sections, my brain and heart rearranging themselves with each pass (yes, this essay is simultaneously cerebral and guttural), only to return days later to read the entire piece once more, eager to gleam new insights and understandings from Allen’s poetic, painfully honest prose. Original artwork by Anthony Young using bleach and gunpowder only enhances the message, the multiple messages, Allen is giving us. It’s a valuable read for everyone, but I urge all progressive white folk out there to read it, really truly deeply read it, and learn.

“I’m White. My 4-Year-Old Son’s Black. How Do We Talk About ‘Bad Guys’?” by Kera Bolonik

macomb-kids

This 1973 photo of five children playing in a Detroit suburb has gone viral on the Internet. The children were Rhonda Shelly, 3 (from left), Kathy Macool, 7, Lisa Shelly, 5, Chris Macool, 9, and Robert Shelly, 6.

Kera Bolonik recently wrote a beautiful, thoughtful piece for The Cut on when and how parents should address racism with their children, and how her particular circumstances as a white, queer woman raising an adopted, black son affect these conversations. We as parents of young children have a deep responsibility to our future society to raise open-minded, empathic, not-racist adults, and we as white people really bear the brunt of this responsibility, but what is the best way to do it? I understand not wanting to shatter a child’s innocence too soon, and part of me wants to wait until questions naturally arise, but then I think of that poor little girl who watched Philando Castile’s murder, and of all the other kids who suffer as a result of racism and race-based violence in this country, and I suspect that this concept of not shattering their innocence is another aspect of white privilege.

I also wonder about my son’s abilities based on his developmental level. If he grows up hearing my husband and I talking about race-related issues, if we address things head on with him even if it seems too early, will that build a more solid foundation for him and make him less confused, or will it be too difficult and even more confusing? I know that so much of it depends on the individual child, but it’s hard to figure out that line. I want Lew to be the best Lew he can possibly be, and I want him to have the freedom to explore what that means to him, but at the same time, I want to ensure that he’s loving, thoughtful, compassionate, and not racist.

Perhaps I’m being hasty. He is only 18 months old. And as it is completely ingrained in every aspect of our culture, I’m sure there will be a million natural opportunities to discuss racism, from the toys he will play with to the characters in the movies he will watch to the ads in the subway he will walk by every day. Maybe instead of considering how to handle these conversations, I should for now just sit and luxuriate in the easy ones we currently have about ball balls, dog dogs, nanas (bananas), and agua (meaning water, milk, or any liquid, really). But either way, these are important things to think about and discuss with other parents; the more we communicate with one another, the stronger we (and our children) will be.

We Need More People Like D. Watkins

d watkinsIf you don’t know who D. Watkins is, get to know him. He’s smart, brave, strong, funny, and dedicated to teaching kids and the country at large about the realities of growing up black on the streets of Baltimore. This drug dealer turned teacher and writer tackles serious issues head-on in a completely relatable way, even if you (like me) grew up in a very different place. But don’t worry, he’s not all drugs and death; you’ll definitely laugh a little, too. Read him, listen to him, be grateful for people like him.

Check out his newest memoir, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir, and his 2015 release, The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America.

Photo taken from NBC News.

Marriage and Parenthood

waldmanimageA big anxiety of mine surrounding parenthood is losing the spark between my husband and me.  I don’t want “the two of us” time to get lost in “the three of us” time, or to become “the two of us talking about the baby” time.  I’m very much looking forward to family time, and I think watching my husband be a father will be a truly special and exciting experience, but what we have right now is great.  I’m wildly in love with him.  I don’t want the baby to take over that love.  I don’t want our lives to become centered around our child.  And I think this is important, for our own well-being and for the child’s.  Children need to feel that their parents’ relationship is safe and secure.  They also need to know that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

In her inspiring article, Truly, Madly, Guiltily, appearing in The New York Times back in 2005, Ayelet Waldman expressed similar sentiments (much more eloquently).  But apparently, most Americans don’t agree with us. The backlash Waldman received after publishing her article is insane.  People threatened to report her to Child Protective Services! I, however, felt relief as I read it.  Keeping the spark alive is possible.  Loving your spouse as much, if not more than, your child is okay.  You are partners in life, before, during, and after raising children.  You are not partners with your children.

As Danielle Teller writes in her recent article How American Parenting is Killing the American Marriage, “We choose partners who we hope will be our soulmates for life.  When children come along, we believe that we can press pause on the soulmate narrative because parenthood has become our new priority and religion.”  I am lucky to have found my soulmate who, after eight years together, still sends flutters across my stomach, still turns me on, still makes me feel sexy and loved.  Obviously, pressing pause isn’t the way to sustain this wonderful, healthy connection between us.  And in my opinion, parenthood shouldn’t become an all-powerful thing that takes over every other aspect of our lives.  Yes, I realize that recovering from labor, learning to breast feed, sleeping in two hour increments, changing 10+ diapers a day, not showering and barely eating is not romantic.  I understand that children are demanding during all phases of their lives, and that parenting is exhausting.  I also understand that no matter how much I’ve babysat, read about parenting, or studied about child development, I have no real concept of what my life is going to be like in six months.  But Waldman and Teller give me hope that while it’s not easy, and while many people may not agree with it, it is possible and good to prioritize my relationship with and love for my husband.  Doing this will not make me a bad mother.

Image taken from Truly, Madly, Guiltily, published in The New York Times on March 27, 2005.