because in times of uncertainty, poems can be buoys
“The World below the brine” by Walt Whitman
Poets and Poetry – 19th Century
My very favorite Whitman. Something about the world that exists below, in the darkness of the ocean, reminds me that there are things that we humans will never know, and that, for some reason, makes me calm and hopeful.
Rita Dove is a genius of verse and one of our greatest living poets. The dueling powers of serene elation and melancholy reality make this poem both exquisitely tragic and perfectly (and tragically) American.
Epic Poem – Poets and Poetry – Political –Eighteenth Century
Written in the classic Vietnamese narrative form called Truyện Nôm, or a story in the southern script, The Tale of Kiêu illuminates the life of Thúy Kiều, a young woman who sacrifices her independence and her body in order to free her father and brother from the debts they owe the government. The price Kiêu pays for selling herself into marriage is immense and, in the end, it is her ability to feel worthy of love that becomes her greatest sacrifice. Timeless themes of personal identity and political obligation are laced through the narrative. In his introduction to the bilingual edition of The Tale of Kiêu, Alexander Woodside defines Du’s work as much more than just a literary artifact: “Western readers who are curious about Vietnam and the Vietnamese may well gain more real wisdom from cultivating a discriminating appreciation of this one poem than they will from reading the entire library of scholarly and journalist writings upon modern Vietnam.”
The Shahnameh by Abu al-Qasem Ferdowsi
Epic Poem – Poets and Poetry –Mythical – Eleventh Century
Composed over a span of thirty years (977-1010), The Shahnameh chronicles the foundation of the Iranian empire through the ages. Though commonly known as “The Persian Book of Kings,” Shah means more than just male royalty–according to scholar Hamid Dabashi, Ferdowsi also intends it to mean best, or significant— so the epic is filled with formidable men, women, and creatures who battle, enchant, arouse and beguile their way through the narrative. Vivid, thrilling, devastating, and fantastical, The Shahnameh reads like a more elegant version of Game of Thrones rendered in couplets.
The Tales of the Heike
Epic Prose – Military Narrative – Twelfth Century
Like the Grecian epics, The Tales of the Heike cannot be traced back to one individual author. This epic, usually told in prose-form, comes from the oral and written tradition of medieval Japanese gunki-mono, or warrior tales. The narrative is set in 1185, at the very end of the Genepi War, a conflict between the Tiara and Minamoto clans that would help usher Japanese society into a feudal system. Though told from the perspective of several different samurai, and peppered with military exploits, The Tales are also layered with Buddhist themes, especially, as Haruo Shiraine and Burton Watson illustrate in their 2006 translation, the Law of Impermanence, which becomes strikingly significant in the context of war.
The progenitor of the surf noir genre, Nunn drops a man on a search into a dangerous Huntington beach blender of drug dealers, wacked out surfers, angry Vietnam veterans, and plenty of violence on the dark side of the Golden State. Built on the California ennui style Ross Macdonald crafted in his Archer novels, Nunn’s book helped create a different setting for the lonely man fighting for what’s right among the lotus-eaters.
The Dawn Patrolby Don Winslow
Surf fiction – Noir – 21st Century
Now better known for his Cartel drug trilogy, Winslow created the ideal surfing detective, an ex-cop private investigator who works only so he can surf every morning with other aging boarders. But when he’s given a chance to correct a haunting mistake from the past, as well as work with an attractive attorney on bringing down an insurance scam, he’s in. Winslow is pacey, sure, and engaging as ever, though the rot inside the Golden State breaks through.
Pirataby Patrick Hasburgh
Surf fiction – Noir – 21st Century
A former successful California car salesman ends up down, out, and one-eyed in Mexico, where he surfs, drinks and hangs out with other wave-mad expats. But the monsoon season brings shifting relationships and when a body washes up on the local surf spot, the past, as always, returns in unexpected ways. Humourous and suspenseful, it’s a wild ride.
Winter Counts, the debut novel by David Heska Wanbli Weiden is an intense and moving contemporary crime novel that takes place on the Lakota Sioux Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The main character, Virgil Wounded Horse, has had a life filled with loss and hard luck. After losing his parents and sister, he assumes responsibility for his teenaged nephew, Nathan. Virgil works hard to be a good example for his late sister’s son while maintaining both his own sobriety and a risky job as the reservation’s go-to muscle for hire. When Virgil is asked to investigate the recent influx of heroin on the reservation, he is forced to confront both the evils of the American drug trade and the secretive inner workings of his own tribal nation. Winter Counts is gripping marks David Heska Wanbli Weiden as a major new voice in literary crime fiction.
The Lying Lives of Adults by Elena Ferrante
New – Literary Fiction
Elena Ferrante is the Pseudonym for the Italian writer who has written several acclaimed novels including the four-book Neopolitan series, which is often referred to by the first volume, My Brilliant Friend. The Lying Lives of Adults is also set in Naples, and it focuses on the life of a girl named Giovanna as she evolves from childhood to young adulthood. Along the way, she forms an intense bond with her estranged aunt, learns hidden truths about her parents, and explores the forbidden neighborhoods of the tumultuous and vibrant city in which they all live. With her signature biting humor and profound insights into the human condition, Ferrante has created a stunning portrait of a girl who is learning to locate herself within the context of her family and her world.
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
New – Literary Fiction
Jack, the fourth and final novel in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series, tells the story of the lonely and errant Jack Boughton who looms like a heartbreaking shadow in the previous novels. Over and over again, Jack turns to alcohol in order to numb his feelings of inadequacy and displacement both in his family and in the larger world. After a stint in prison, Jack finds himself in post-WWII St. Louis where he strikes up a relationship with a young black schoolteacher named Della Miles. Jack and Della, both children of ministers, discover a mutual admiration for literature and an ability to see and accept each other as the complex humans that they are. Though society refuses to acknowledge their love for each other, Della and Jack understand that despite the guilt and isolation that comes with defying the rules, in the end, it is the grace they receive from following their hearts that matters most.
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 by James Baldwin
Non-Fiction–20th Century–Personal Essays–Classics
The Price of the Ticket containsalmost every piece of nonfiction the great and prophetic Baldwin wrote, from his earliest published works to those in the final years of his life. Ranging from his longest and most famous essays like The Fire Next Time to shorter works of literary criticism, Baldwin’s brilliant and exquisitely articulated observations are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. Steadfast and melodic, the ghost-like echo of Baldwin’s singular voice rings out from every sentence, every word. The Price of the Ticket is an essential American classic.
The Art of the Personal Essay, An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present Selected by Phillip Lopate
A comprehensive compendium of the form, The Art of the Personal Essay begins with the work of “forerunners” like Seneca, Plutarch, and Hsiu. In the four sections that follow, Lopate winds his way from Montaigne, Hazlitt, and Edgeworth to Woolf, Baldwin, and Rodriguez, and almost every major essayist in between. Roland Barthes’ views on cinema, G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on wearing hats on windy days, and Joan Didion’s reflections on her crushing migraines, are just a few of the many topics covered in this hefty volume.
Intimations by Zadie Smith
Non-Fiction-21st Century–Personal Essays
In six essays, the inimitable Zadie Smith offers her crystalline observations of life during the early days of the lockdown. Setting her keen eye on the individuals she encounters on a daily basis, Smith brings their lives into focus against the backdrop of a world grappling with both COVID and the unrelenting virus of hate. In a time of social isolation, Intimations reminds us that we are still here and if we put down our phones long enough to take a look around, we may notice each other, not simply as masked strangers, but as fellow participants in this “global humbling.”
Little noticed when published posthumously, Leopold’s ruminations on the seasonal changes in the natural world near his farm in Wisconsin, along with his essays on humanity’s impact on the environment up until that time, helped set off the movement to restore and protect Earth’s ecology. We aren’t only stewards of the natural world – we are OF the natural world and Leopold reminds us that it is inescapably part of who we are.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Creek by Annie Dillard
Dillard has said she doesn’t think of herself as a nature writer, but her inner monologues about God, Christianity, nature, consciousness, evil and meaning are grounded in the natural world even when they lift off into airier planes. As a stylist, she’s superb, but her observations about nature put her in the company of one of her literary heroes, Thoreau.
King Solomon’s Ringby Konrad Lorenz
Nobel prize winner and one of the founders of ethology, or the study of animals as they behave in their environment, Lorenz wrote charmingly and provided whimsical illustrations in this effort to popularize what then might have seemed radical – that animal behavior is understandable, learnable and much closer psychologically speaking to human than we might care to admit.
Nobel Prize winner Dereck Walcott’s epic masterpiece, Omeros, is Homeric in scope but entirely Walcott in both its message and poetic technique. The poet tackles the tragedy of colonialism, the subjugation of land and people, specifically, his native island of St. Lucia (“the Helen of the West Indies”) with luminous, natural imagery and a loose yet impactful terza rima scheme.
The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
Poets and Poetry–20th Century
Written as an exercise to detach from the tedious demands of an economics doctoral program, The Golden Gate explores the complexities of monogamy, marriage, and friendship in 1980s San Francisco. What makes this work so singularly impressive is that Seth is able to utilize the sonnet as a vehicle for conveying an expansive yet nuanced narrative of modern love and loss.
Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson
Poets and Poetry–21st Century–Biography
Poet and essayist Maggie Nelson tells the story of her aunt Jane’s short life and murder through a series of poetic, dreamscapes that draw from her aunt’s journal, family memories, and her own exquisite imagination. The result is a haunting biography in verse that both celebrates and eulogizes a young woman whose promising life was mercilessly cut short.
The Reader Over Your Shoulderby Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
Style guide–20th Century
Concieved on the cusp of WWII, Graves and Hodge’s guide to writing prose in the English language was developed in an effort to preserve some semblance of certainty at a time when life, as they knew it, was about to become a memory. The Reader Over Your Shoulder is not only a guide for creating clear and impactful prose; it is also an exploration of the history of writing in English, peculiarities of the language itself, and the many styles of writing that can be crafted from it. Above all else, Graves and Hodge shepherd us through the essential techniques needed to set down our thoughts with clarity and grace.
Bird by Birdby Anne Lamott
Perhaps Bird by Bird is so widely beloved because it honestly acknowledges the terror and self-loathing that can be felt by so many of us who endeavor to write. With humor, warmth, and practicality, novelist and essayest, Anne Lamott offers her wisdom on dealing with “shitty” first drafts (“the child’s draft”), perfectionism (“the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”), how to quiet negative voices (“say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we are going to do right now is write a description of the river at sunrise…”) and how to get started on a short assignment (write down as much as you can see “through a one-inch picture frame”). Over and over within this little gem of a book, Lamott gives us the gift of light in the void of self-doubt.
On Writing by Stephen King
“Sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” This is Stephen King’s way of telling us to just keep writing, even if we feel like the entire enterprise is useless. Indeed, of all the advice the prolific novelist doles out in this Memoir of the Craft, the one that resonates most is that in order to learn how to write well, one must practice writing “without fear and affectation” and dispense with the notion that there is actually “good” or “bad” writing. With his razor-sharp honesty and biting humor, King reminds us that the real monster in every writer’s closet is him or herself.
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue by Samuel R. Delany
Erotic–Memoir–Cultural History–20th Century
Samuel R. Delany, best known for his groundbreaking science fiction, chronicles his escapades on Forty-second street in this vivid and honest memoir. If you were even mildly tickled by David Simon’s attempt to recapture the glory days of Times Square smut in The Deuce, you will likely delight in Delany’s nostalgic descent into the recesses of the theaters, peep shows, and toy shops, while he describes a world in which men, both straight and gay, felt the freedom to indulge in their desires and at the same time tap into a tenuous yet potent feeling of camaraderie and community that has long since been replaced by cartoon musicals and personal handheld devices.
The Surrender by Toni Bentley
Dancer Toni Bentley is effusive and at times hyperbolic in her admiration for backdoor bliss, but despite the dramatic flair, her memoir can’t help being both sincere and charming in its way. By exalting both the physical sensation and the incredible sense of power and release she feels while engaging in the act of anal sex, Bentley makes a convincing plug for those who have yet to cross this particular Rubicon.
A Letter From My Father: The Strange, Intimate Correspondence of W. Ward Smith to His Son Page Smith by Page Smith
Strange and intimate indeed! Upon his father’s death in 1968, Page Smith was bequeathed the epic letter that his father had intended for him to read and learn from. In between the mundane details of his business and family life, W. Ward Smith frequently litters his missive with intensely graphic retellings of his gluttonous sexual escapades that spanned decades. Thankfully, Page Smith rejected his initial impulse to burn the over ten-thousand pages, and instead decided to publish A Letter From My Father, making itarare and abundant social/sexual document written by a genuine and prolific libertine.
In the 1880s, leisure boating took hold in Great Britain, and thus Jerome K. Jerome planned a trip to write a Thames boating travelogue. He ended up, after traveling with two friends up the river from Kingston to Oxford, with a witty, whimsical, and thoroughly charming little book. Refreshing and unrushed, an absolute charmer.
Jurgen by James Branch Cabell
He counted among his admirers H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain, and Sinclair Lewis, and wrote dozens of novels set in an arch and very adult fantasy world. Jurgen won Cabell notoriety for its supposed salaciousness – our hero is a serial seducer which did not go over well in 1919 America, but sex is not the point – satire and deft writing is as Jurgen goes all the way to Hell on his travels.
The Complete Stories of Saki by H. H. Munro
A vengeful ferret deity, a talking cat, a woman reincarnated as an otter, and the foibles of countless upper-class twits – Saki merged the strange, the silly, and the laughable in dozens of compact and memorable stories set among the toffs in Great Britain pre-WWI. Clever young boys and devious young men are his favorite heroes, but there’s a bite of nasty delight in all his work.