reading january - april 2023
i am really pretty but i also read for fun
I identify strongly as a reader, someone who enjoys reading leisurely, a bookworm if you will. I love bookstores and sitting in cafes or libraries or parks alternating between writing in my journal and reading my book. I have always been like this, when I was in the 4th grade I requested special access to the library at recess when it was most quiet so I could read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli over and over again. I love the expansion of my intellect that I find challenged and inspired by the consumption of others’ writing in a way I don’t feel fulfilled in listening to others’ songwriting. Because I do not consider myself a writer or a poet by any means, it is a medium I can extract myself from entirely and cultivate an opinion of the work completely outside of comparison and competition with my own work. I find the intricacies of what I’ve read seeping into the way I view and experience the world. Whereas with songs, the way I listen to them is already impacted by my view and experience of the world at any given moment. In short, reading is less fleeting.
This year, I’ve made it a point to document my thoughts while reading better. When people ask me for recommendations, I always say that I remember loving the book, but I can’t remember why. So - it is April and I have read enough so far to take a moment to talk about it.
Firstly, here is a list of what I’ve read this year so far in chronological order at the time of writing this:
-Upstream by Mary Oliver
-Thirst by Mary Oliver
-Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
-Swan by Mary Oliver
-Essential Emily Dickinson Selected by Joyce Carol Oates
-The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll
-Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
-On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
-Here is the Sweet Hand by Francine J. Harris
-The Other You by Joyce Carol Oates
-All About Love by Bell Hooks
-American Primitive by Mary Oliver
-Writers & Lovers by Lily King
-Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey
-The Book of Repulsive Women: & Other Poems by Djuna Barnes
-Dreamwork by Mary Oliver
-Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Firstly, it feels important to note that I am drawn to female and/or queer writers. While I understand the significance and importance of literature and art by straight white men, it is extremely rare that I read one. Did enough of that by mandatory obligation in high school. Snooze. Boring. Next.
It will be easiest to start with Mary Oliver. I first read “Blue Iris,” a collection of her poetry, years ago. While I loved it then, it wasn’t until this past summer, after reading “Owls & Other Fantasies” that I really understood her. My dad tells the story of a professor he had in college recommending a book because it “changed his life,” and upon reading it, my dad found it comical to have such a bold statement attached. I always respond to this story with the reminder that a work of art usually only “changes your life” (moves you in a grand and significant way) when it finds you at the right time. When I read Mary Oliver as a young woman living alone, experiencing independence and an overwhelming appreciation for life's most simple and mundane offerings, it changed my life. Ever since then, I read everything and anything of Oliver’s I can get my hands on. The poetry is always moving to me, most notably “A Meeting” which inspired me to get a tattoo of a deer on my right arm this year. “She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. / Her child leaps among the flowers, the blue of the sky falls over me / like silk, the flowers burn, and I want / to live my life all over again, to begin again, / to be utterly / wild.”
I read Why I Wake Early in January, which is the first collection of Oliver’s essays that I have read. I was moved by her storytelling for the same subjects as her poetry. My favorite of this particular collection was “Bird.” A beautiful telling of two women nurturing an injured gull until its inevitable death. I think it captures the love two women who love each other have for the world. “He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact; there is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive.” I’ve always felt a strong connection to birds for their song and their nests. This essay moved me. I won’t mislead you like my fathers professor, it moved me because of who I am.
Oliver is my top recommendation to everyone. The way she sees the world is the way I hope we all can see the world at some point in our lives. Her entire body of work is universally accessible as it's solely focused on the natural world. I believe everyone has a moment in their life where they will understand and love Mary Oliver as much as I do right now.
Because of my intense passion for Mary Oliver, I decided to try to read some other poetry. Thus Essential Emily Dickinson Selected by Joyce Carol Oates and Here is the Sweet Hand by Francine J. Harris, both of which go over my head. Still recommend reading. Beautiful works, I’m just a little too stupid I guess! I am just a girl! I did, however, love The Book of Repulsive Women: & Other Poems by Djuna Barnes, which I picked up at a bookstore on my trip to New York because the cover has a cool painting of a woman in a suit on it. After reading it and loving the poems, particularly “The Dreamer,” “Seen from the L,” “Love Song, " and “Portrait of a Lady Walking,” I did some follow up research of Barnes. She lived for 90 years, 1892-1982. And she was queer as fuck. It’s always so special when I find out that the artist or writer behind a work that has moved me is also a queer woman. Not surprising because queer women are incredible, but still special. I’ve read some other classic lesbian literature and enjoyed it thoroughly for what it is while also acknowledging how outdated and sometimes offensive it can be. This was true with Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, both of which are very famous. But Barnes is one I hadn’t heard so praised, so I recommend to read up on and to read her to all my fellow sapphics. From “Lullaby,” - “When I was a young child I slept with a dog, / I lived without trouble and I thought no harm; / I ran with the boys and I played leap-frog; / Now it is a girl’s head that lies on my arm.”
I’m grouping Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton and All About Love by Bell Hooks into the same conversation, they are both centered around informing or educating the reader about romantic and platonic love. Everything I Know About Love is a memoir and All About Love is creative nonfiction. My issue with both, primarily All About Love is how gendered it is. As a lesbian who also just is drawn to primarily female friendships, I found it hard to resonate with a lot of Hooks’ ideology. Everything I Know About Love was more accessible to me because of Alderton’s expertise and insight of female friendship, which we both agree is the most pure and powerful human connection. I read Everything I Know About Love in a few days. It’s my top recommendation for people seeking a feel-good, independence motivator. Reading it as a single woman reminded me of how beautiful and crucial friendship is. The love shared between me and my long term female friendships is a bond like no other. “It takes a village to mend a broken heart” is one of my favorite quotes from the book, which Alderton says after the chapter of her best friend's fiance leaving her shortly after the death of her little sister. She says that for months, her friend was never alone. Everyone that loved her took alternating shifts with her, and they all checked in with each other regarding her well-being. After my first real breakup, I had a similar 24 hour kind of watch for the first week. My friends welcomed me with open arms, never making me feel like a burden. They fed me and we sang together and watched TV series after series until I fell asleep in their beds. Everything I Know About Love is a reminder that, especially in your 20’s, you are not lacking love without a significant other, that love exists in friendship.
I felt the opposite while reading All About Love, in which I interpreted most of Hooks’ writing to center around the idea that our purpose in life as human beings (or as women, in particular) is to find a romantic life partner. I am a romantic at heart and being in love is one of the most beautiful things that floors me every time I experience it, but it is not everything. Even when I have lost love like that, I know it’s not everything because of the flood of other kinds of love that immediately follows that loss. I really loved her chapter about addiction and love. I sent it to my friends who have struggled with loving an addict. “Addicts want release from pain; they are not thinking about love.” I recommend All About Love to anyone who doesn’t believe in romantic love or is in search of their life partner in the near future, who want to distinguish a passionate love affair with finding a realistic, healthy person to cultivate a life with. Hooks’s quotes Love and Awakening: Discovering the Sacred Path of Intimate Relationship by John Welwood with “‘A soul connection is a resonance between two people who respond to the essential beauty of each other's individual natures, behind their facades, and who connect on a deeper level. This kind of mutual recognition provides the catalyst for a potent alchemy. While a heart connection lets us appreciate those we love just as they are, a soul connection opens up a further dimension- seeing and loving them for who they could be, and for who we could become under their influence.’”
By far one of my favorite reads so far this year is Writers & Lovers by Lily King, which I also picked up (and finished) on a trip to New York. I sat in the park and in the bathtub and on the right side of the bed flipping through those pages. The way King depicts the female writer is so on the nose for me. The whole novel, our narrator is essentially just going through the ringer. Her mom dies on a trip to Cuba, she works a job that doesn’t fulfill her passion or help her pay off student debt, and her love life is a series of comical mistakes. She’s living a very day-to -day existence. “People are crazy with their planning. How do they know where they will be living next year or if they will even be alive?” Right towards the end of the book, she has a total turn-around day. She starts a new job, her book gets published and she can pay her debt, and she gets another chance with the one that got away. The characters are vivid, the scenery so dynamic, I totally got lost in the story. Cheesy! I finished it on the second to last night of being in the city and I called Bess (my best friend's mom and my second mom.) I told her that I wanted my turn-around day. Reading that book reminded me of how good it feels to feel the hard work pay off. And for a year, it was feeling like all I did was work with no pay off. Like life kept punching me in the knees while I was trying to walk through a tunnel. Bess told me what she always tells me, that it’s about the journey and knowing that good things will come. I took another bath and went to sleep. The next day (my last full day in the city) the sun was shining for the first time all week. I picked up another book and enjoyed the apartment I had to myself for the night. I prepared for a show I was playing that night. I posted some promotional shit for my single that had just come out and it did well so I gained a lot of listeners. The show itself was wonderful, a packed house and attentive audience. And at the show, I met a girl. And she came home with me. And now she is my girlfriend and I am stupid in love with her. The day after I finished this book was the day I’d been waiting for all year, the day everything changes and starts to look brighter. Anyway, Writers & Lovers will always have a special place in my heart because of this.
Another large reason I loved this novel aside from my transformative life bias is King’s subtle yet effective showcasing of misogyny. A lot of the men she is romantically involved with are also writers. “ Paco had one of his books I think, and I didn’t much like the writers Paco did, men who wrote tender, poetic sentences that tried to hide the narcissism and misogyny of their stories.” I love this description so much, I’ve never heard that feeling so eloquently articulated. Later in the book, while she’s dating a more successful writer, he goes to a reading at a bookstore and “moans about not reading at the church.” I love this part too: “At first, with my boyfriends in college, I believed it too. Later, I thought I was just choosing delusional men. Now I understand it’s how boys are raised to think, how they are lured into adulthood. I’ve met ambitious, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.” I am always dumbfounded by how men behave in the world as a result of how the world treats them. It’s everywhere, every space a man exists in my life I see it. In yoga, the men breathe loudly and obnoxiously. At the cafe I work at, the men are impatient and don’t clean their tables. My upstairs neighbor stomps and moves his furniture at 2 AM. It’s most prominent in music for me. In a conversation with a fellow lesbian musician collaborator, I expressed my distaste for working with men because of their inherited attitude. I told her that I was passionate and persistent with working as exclusively as I can with other women and queer women, to which her response was that I was “shooting myself in the foot.” She said that she worked with “the most non toxic men ever.” This made my blood boil. I could go into an entirely different discussion on how so many lesbians (masculine lesbians in particular) can have misogynistic tendencies, which I blame for this viewpoint of hers. Men are raised to be this way, there is no exception. Not in queer men, not in feminine men. Some are better than others, but that truth is always there.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous had been recommended to me numerous times. I’ve heard praise for Ocean Vuong from many of my writer friends. However, I am cautious around books written by men for the reasons I stated above. But that book is insane. It’s my top recommendation for everyone. I think every person should read that book. I’m curious to read Vuong’s poetry because of how beautiful the diction is in his tongue throughout the novel. I feel similarly with Crying in H Mart, which I heard of through my girlfriend despite being a fan of Japanese Breakfast. The memoir has a lot of hype and praise surrounding it, but it truly does not disappoint. Zauner’s storytelling is visceral and emotional. The details of the intricacies of her mothers cooking brings the bond they have to the forefront of the reader's mind. Both Vuong and Zauner are queer POC and both books focus deeply on the relationship between mother and child. I am a queer person who thinks a lot about motherhood, (both being a mother and having a mother.) The relationship between those two parties are intense and emotional, a bond like no other. The way Zauner and Vuong depict that uniqueness is somehow tangible and ethereal. Both are truly beautiful. I entirely, wholeheartedly recommend them to everyone.
Thank you for reading! I will read some more books and write about them again later this year.
My album comes out on April 28th.