My first published poem, “The Siege of Baghdad,” is live over at The Bookends Review. It’s about a topic I’ve found myself writing on “again and again.”
Ana María Shua may be one of the best living practitioners of [microfiction]. Though the Argentinian has written novels, poetry, and children’s books, she is best known for her microfiction, often described as the “queen” of the genre. Indeed, there is so much going on in the pages of House of Geishas, but somehow more going on off the page, which is a credit to the author’s ability. In the book, she demonstrates her complete mastery of the form, providing incisive and cutting tales that question, wound, bemuse, and befuddle.
For the last 15 years, I’ve been tracking my reading. I thought I’d share a post with some of the notable things I’ve read in 2023.
After all these years, though, I’ve come to see tracking as double-edged sword. On one side of the blade, tracking gives one strong insights into what information one has digested, fictional worlds entered, and lets one look back and remember books one may have otherwise forgotten. On the other side, all of this tracking can sometimes making reading seem to be “another thing,” or a task to check off a list.
While I intend to keep tracking in 2024, I may sit out the “challenge” in Goodreads. Reading, for me, is something I find personally engaging and fulfilling—it’s not a competition.
This year I finally read Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis. I’d read his most recent book, American Dialogue, connecting the founders with contemporary issues, and had snagged a hardback of this Pulitzer-winner at a library sale. “Founding Brothers” was astonishing—I find Ellis to be much more engaging than some of the other historians of the period, especially psychologically. I’m recommending Ellis to anyone who loves reading about the founders as much as I do. I purchased a copy of “American Dialogue” as a gift for my dad.
Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, was the finest novel I read this past year. It’s a masterpiece. This was the first Kingsolver book for me, after a glowing recommendation from my wife. Her characters are rich and so distinctly clear products of their environment and upbringing, something not often seen in the American literary fiction I’ve read, at least.There is more Kingsolver in my future.
One of the six books I reviewed this year, Fernanda Melchor’s This is Not Miami, was perhaps the finest. And it’s also my favorite book of the year, alongside “Demon Copperhead” and “The Family Roe” (more on that last one later). If you want to see more of my thoughts on it, head overto Literal Magazine.
The Tyranny of Merit, by Michael Sandel, was another one of those nonfiction books I’ve read recently that has clarified my perspective on things. His central insight is that the rhetorical or political focus (often by Democrats) on meritocracy has an insidious side, that of making folks who didn’t “win” the meritocracy—really, most of us—feel disillusioned while those that did—say, the Harvards and Yalies—feel that they deserve their success perhaps more than they really do. Sandel is self-aware enough that being a Harvard professor doesn’t interfere with his clear understanding and clear-eyed insight into the way his students have changed, but not for the better.
Lastly, The Family Roe was perhaps the best nonfiction book I read in 2023. It took Joshua Prager a decade to write it, but the effort was worth it. Prager is not an apologist for the court decision, nor a loather of it, instead focusing on the people involved: from unhappy and enigmatic Norma McCorvey, or “Jane Roe,” to the eccentric lawyers, and even more eccentric (and tragic) abortion opponent Mildred Jefferson. He discovered a lot of new information, especially about McCorvey. The book also makes one think hard about the role of courts and legislatures when it comes to abortion—but not in a partisan or black-and-white manner.
Old Fiction Favorites
More novels this year by Toni Morrison; Richard Dooling (my old law prof!); Don DeLillo (Cosmopolis, which might be the finest book of his I’ve read); Cormac McCarthy; and Richard Yates, among others.
The Supreme Court
Perhaps because I’ve returned to the practice of law, my reading on legal things has stepped up this year. Among the selections: Supreme Inequality by Adam Cohen; The Shadow Docket by Stephen Vladeck; “The Family Roe,” Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America by Wil Haygood; and The Most Dangerous Branch by David Kaplan. The Kaplan was a nice balm for me, with good critical analysis of activism by both the “conservative” and “liberal” justices, which was needed after reading the more left-leaning critique of Cohen. It’s a strong defense of judicial minimalism. Vladeck’s analysis of SCOTUS’ usage of its non-opinion writing power—a good recent example of “judicial triumphalism,” I bet Kaplan would think—was also fairly balanced, it seemed to me, even if Justice Alito apparently hates him and Vladeck is transparent about leaning left. Haygood, meanwhile, further convinced me that Thurgood Marshall would have been a top-25 American of all time, even if he hadn’t served on the Supreme Court. (Though Kaplan did note that, despite his overwhelming greatness as a lawyer, Marshall sometimes may have phoned it in on the top bench.)
In 2023, I read a bit more poetry than I have in years past—seven or so full length books of verse. First, I kicked off the year by finally reading through all of the original edition of “Leaves of Grass,” having read bits of Whitman for years, ever since I crashed a Whitman conference on campus as a college student.
The highlight was Donald Justice’s New and Selected Poems. I’d never encountered Justice, the “poet’s poet” before, but I found his poems to be engaging and startlingly relevant. (“Men at Forty” being the most on the nose.) Perhaps it was this poetry reading that inspired me to start submitting poems of my own. (My first published poem, “The Siege of Baghdad,” is forthcoming at Bookends Review.) Other highlights include a series of poems from the perspectives of jurors by Rita Dove, and several startling Louis Glück verses.
My review of Alejandra Oliva’s “Rivermouth: A Chrinoncle of Language, Faith, and Migration” is now live over at Literal Magazine. From the review:
In the book, Oliva interweaves her own life as a bilingual child of Mexican immigrants with the frustrations and exigencies of the southern border of the United States: its bureaucracy, the inhumanity, and frustrations. The book straddles the line somewhere between memoir, philosophical meditation, and policy criticism. It is most successful when Oliva uses her sophisticated views on translation as an entré into immigration.
There was a lot to like in this book, but I would only recommend it to someone particularly interested in translation.
The best stories seduce. They draw you in and make you fall for them, become infatuated with them, and you lose focus on the rest of the world and only want to know what is going to happen next, what the character will say or do, how the story will end. You stay up late. Neglect your family, your work, your other hobbies. You breathe only at the periods.
Fernanda Melchor is no stranger to such seduction.
This one of the best books I’ve reviewed recently, and I highly recommend you check it out.
Grateful to the Hawai’i Pacific Review for publishing my short story “The Thimble Burglar.” This marks my tenth short story to be published, but my first since the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how it begins, rather simply:
They were waiting for us.
The core of this story features a bit—the windy day drop-off—that I’ve been working and reworking over the years, and it’s appeared in various forms (mostly still unpublished), as well, including in some longer things. The story also has a few classic Lincoln, Nebraska references, if you’re a local.
My review of “Ischia” by Gisela Heffes is now live over at Literal Magazine. From the review:
“Ischia,” Gisela Heffes’ novel–originally published in 2000, and now available in an English translation by Grady C. Wray—is constituted of almost entirely of the stories the unnamed narrator tells herself. These are fictional stories with the novel, where the narrator imagines elaborate scenarios that might—though probably won’t—happen. The book asks us to consider the role that our own storytelling, and our own fantasies, play in our lives.
This book can be difficult to read at times, but it’s unique and provides a twist on storytelling that I’d been looking for.