January Reading

Aware of the tedium of  year-end compiling, and because I miss my professional book reviewing days, I’m going to post monthly lists. I follow no program. At the library I pick up whatever my hungry eye sees, for example The Genius of Birds, Jennifer Ackerman’s ornithological study about which readers will likely learn ’round these parts next month.

Some of these things tested my deep patience. The redoubtable Books & Books had the second volume of the late Robert Remini’s three-part Andrew Jackson bio at ten bucks at their annual New Year’s Day. Anticipating an apologia, I instead got a decently critical appraisal. Remini likes Old Hickory, true; the strongest parts of the volume he devotes to the man’s deep courtesy and surprisingly impish sense of humor. He is, as you might expect, hideous on Jackson’s war against the Second Bank. Wedded to the now discredited binary the few vs THE PEOPLE, Remini doesn’t address the implications of Jackson’s ruinous policy: panic after panic would ensue because we lacked federal control over supply. On Jackson’s extermination of indigenous tribes he is rather better. He doesn’t have much use for John Quincy Adams, a pity.

Can my readers believe I’ve stepped quietly around The Bell Jar most of my life. I tend to think the so-called confessional poets and their fellow travelers receive inordinate attention from critics and scholars. Robert Lowell and John Berryman, despite my efforts and despite a few worn exceptions, remain unreadable; they put their considerable metrical strenuosity at the service of systems whose debts to Eliot and Pound’s grand mythmaking resulted in gnomic, incoherent poems, as in I have no idea what you’re writing about and neither do you. I’ve stuck with Plath because she’s funny. In the years when I taught a lower division poetry course, my students and I wrestled with “Daddy”: were the Nazi analogies commensurate with her personal suffering? Probably not. I let out a whoop when I read The Bell Jar‘s opening sentence: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs” — the old girl’s at it again! Crisp and fleet, The Bell Jar became a sensation when published a decade after its English publication because, like Adrienne Rich’s early poems, it delineated the degree to which uncomprehending men and totally aware parents quashed intelligent women with mature sex drives. The woman is perfected, Plath wrote in “Edge,” in one of the appropriate uses of passive voice. She is perfected, and that was the problem.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is even more discursive than The Winter’s Tale: lost heirs, evil queen-stepmother, Jupiter hurling thunderbolts from Olympus or something.

Impressed by a Christmas weekend immersion in Autumn, I finished Ali Smith’s next entry in her season cycle, disappointed; it seemed to fall apart in my hands. Spring awaits.

Discovery: the fiction of Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian of Jewish descent whose family dramas predated Elena Ferrante’s by decades and are as funny.

Ali Smith – Winter
Robert V. Remini – Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom
Graham Greene – The Comedians
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
John Le Carré – A Legacy of Spies
Shakespeare – Cymbeline
Garth Greenwell – Cleanness
Colin Tóibin – All a Novelist Needs
David S. Reynolds – Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times
Natalia Ginzburg – Happiness, As Such
Natalia Ginzburg – Valentine and Sagittarius
Daniel Mendelsohn – An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic

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