It’s thirty-seven degrees and raining, and the puppy keeps eating her own poop and then puking it onto my carpet. My husband is working from a cabana on the beach in Florida this week, before flying to California. When he sent me a photo of his notebook next to the sands and glistening ocean, I asked if he was looking for a divorce.
Ah, November! If you are also wondering what the point is of this not-October not-December month, here are some suggestions to avoid November in style. Vacationland by John Hodman will get you laughing, Missing You, Metropolis by Gary Jackson will inspire you and, since it is a slim volume of poetry, enable you to feel superior to those around you for reading excellent, erudite modern poetry. And if you’re feeling the need to steer into the skid of November and want to depress (and impress) the hell out of yourself, then by all means read Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward.
As for me, having finished all of those, I will get back to unapologetically living in the world of Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St. Mary’s series, the first of which I reviewed here. I’m not going to write them all up, as they are pretty similar. I do not care; it’s November, and they are my chosen escapist therapy. Enjoy yours.
Vacationland, John Hodgman
John Hodgman has always struck me as the kind of comedian who is just a writer in disguise, a fact he pretty much admits here. His humor doesn’t need to put others down, and his acknowledgement of his white, straight, male privilege every step of the way is one of those things I admire most about him. This is a comedy-memoir type book, detailing Hodgman’s adventures in rural Massachusetts and Maine.
As a city dweller, he must suss out the mysteries of propane, septic systems, and country manners. He accidentally buys a peapod (a kind of boat for you landlubbers), and fears the men of the town dump. As an occasional city dweller who now lives the rural life myself, I found a lot to identify with, and a lot of laughs. In this book, Hodgman drops the pretension and the masks and owns his unvarnished truths. It’s not to be missed.
Missing You, Metropolis, Gary Jackson
One of the few delights of my email inbox is the poem-a-day email from poets.org. (This is a totally unsolicited plug, by the way.) What I like most about the emails is the diversity of poets and poems. I’ve subscribed for about a year, and it’s a wide mix of older, classic texts, and new, contemporary voices. A week or so ago, I read a poem by Gary Jackson, “Fly,” that was so good I printed it out and hung it above my writing desk for inspiration.
In the about-the-poet section of the email, I learned Jackson had this book out and ordered it at once. It’s fabulous, and not coincidentally the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize (given to the best first poetry collection by an African-American poet.)
Jackson riffs on superheroes and comic books. He imagines and re-imagines the lives of these characters and how they might intersect with the real world. He manages to connect these ideas with real-world problems, especially as related to racism and poverty. Then he takes all of those concepts and wraps them up in precisely chosen, elegant language. The imagery is vivid, compelling, and begs a re-reading. A stunning new poetic voice.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
I first encountered Jesmyn Ward’s writing this summer, through her anthology The Fire This Time. (Review here.) This new novel deserves all the hype it’s getting and more. It is not merely heart-breaking, but heart-shattering.
A young boy, Jojo, and his toddler sister, Kayla, are dependent on their Pop and their Mam, who is dying. Their mother, Leonie, is an abusive drug addict who nonetheless loves her children. She takes her children on a road trip to get their White father, Michael, from jail. They encounter almost unbearable horrors along the way.
Kayla is very ill, and her fever is so searing and distracting that I found myself worrying about her whenever I put the book down. The adults are reckless, irresponsible, neglectful, and high. They are stopped and Jojo is almost shot by a racist police officer. They also pick up a ghost at the prison, to join the other one traveling with them. Only certain people can see the ghosts, and only at certain times. There is much to fear here, but also poignant tenderness between the children.
In the end, the novel asks many of the same questions about Jim Crow and the modern era that Toni Morrison’s masterwork, Beloved, asks about slavery. How do you love and protect someone in a world that chooses not to see them as human? Can an act of violence be protective, an act of love? How do we deal with our many, many ghosts?
This is not in any way a light read. But it is not an avoidable read, either. Jesmyn Ward is, without question, one of the most talented, passionate, important, and moving writers working today. She will blow you away.