What I’ve Been Reading
It’s been awhile since I shared some thoughts on what I’ve been reading. Today I have for you a poetry collection, two memoirs, and a book that resulted from a series of Twitter posts.
I listened to Duende: Poems by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press, 2007) on audio. This is her second collection of poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her third collection, Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011) and was the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017–2019. Most recently Smith stepped down from hosting The Slowdown, a poetry podcast which was one of my favorites.
Duende takes its title from a descriptor by Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), a Spanish poet, playwright, and theatre director who said that duende is “that dark and elusive force that is the creative and elastic power that an artist seeks to channel from within. It can lead the artist to revelation but must also accept and even serenade the possibility of death.” Knowing that, you would assume Duende is a fairly dark collection of poetry. And you would be correct.
I initially downloaded this on audio from my library’s OverDrive collection after seeking something calming to ward off a migraine. I do not recommend Duende for that purpose. These are poems taken from harrowing headlines and history; some of the most powerful ones are about 9/11 and the lost girls of Uganda. Another poem, titled “I Killed You Because You Didn’t Go to School and Had No Future,” was in response to a note left by the body of a 9-year old girl left in a Rios street. Disturbing (to say the least), heavy and chilling. 3/5 stars.
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May (Riverhead Books, 2020) was getting a lot of buzz around the end of the year. I loved its premise: that there are “winterings” in all of our lives, times when death or trauma or illness prompt us to go inward and retreat from the world. What purpose and insight do these times hold for us and how can we emerge stronger? By all accounts, this should have been right up my alley. In fact, my therapist and I were coincidentally reading this at the same time. (We’re both avid readers and we usually bookend our sessions by talking books, something that drives The Husband bonkers on the occasions when he joins in on my sessions.)
Wintering contains many gorgeous quotable passages that attempt to support May’s reflections on times of her personal wintering — illnesses that struck herself and her husband (who is only identified as H), work stress, her young son’s refusal to go to school — but the structure of this memoir felt shaky. It doesn’t go deep enough. Like a frozen lake, we’re only seeing the surface. There were several “whoa, holy shit, what was that?” moments when something major is mentioned…only to have the topic abruptly change and the situation or personal revelation is never brought up again. An example: May mentions that she has autism and was diagnosed at a time when it wasn’t recognized in girls…and leaves it at that. But I really wanted to hear more about this; it would have been of more interest than her deciding to take a trip to Iceland while five months pregnant. May offers a lot of stories and anecdotes that don’t feel relatable to her concept or are otherwise pedantic and tedious.
Maybe this needed another deep edit. Maybe the book was rushed. It was published in the UK in February 2020 and then in the United States in November, perhaps to appeal to the masses who spent most of 2020 in such a “fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” 2.5/5 stars.
No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality by Michael J. Fox (Flatiron Books, 2020)
Beloved actor and philanthropist Michael J. Fox certainly needs no introduction; many of us grew up watching him in his comedic roles as conservative Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties and time-traveling Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies. We’ve also seen his public battle with Parkinson’s disease. At the time of this memoir’s writing, Fox is 58 years-old and reflecting on living with Parkinson’s for 30 years.
A predominant theme in this book is movement and Fox approaches that from several angles. First, of course, there’s the issue of Parkinson’s itself; the disease is most commonly and accurately known as a movement disorder but significant cognitive decline, including memory loss, is among its lesser-known symptoms. Fox is candid about these challenges and their emotional toll. The book opens with the helplessness of having fallen in his kitchen, followed by a grueling surgery to remove a tumor dangerously close to his spine and the aftermath of an exhausting rehabilitation.
The passage — or movement — of time is also on Fox’s mind. His four kids with Tracy Pollan are getting older and making their way in their own lives. At 58, he feels old before his time. In one of many wry and witty moments throughout his memoir, Fox comments on being the only person to appear on the covers of Rolling Stone and AARP magazines in the same year while comparing himself to his mother and mother-in-law, both in their 90s and active. He writes about his long, close friendships with George Stephanopolos and novelist Harlan Coben — staying connected with others is paramount for Parkinson’s patients — and being fortunate to have had a “second act” of his career with memorable roles in Rescue Me and other shows before retiring from acting.
Finally there’s his evolution as an activist and the growth of the Michael J. Fox Foundation which has funded billions of dollars for Parkinson’s research. Still, Fox questions whether or not he’s been “an honest broker” to the Parkinson’s community by “overselling” optimism. As someone who is part of that community, I’d say he absolutely has been a more than honest broker. I believe that MJF’s optimistic attitude has played a big part in getting him this far. He’s someone who is genuinely admired by the Parkinson’s community; he didn’t need to put himself out there as the poster boy for Parkinson’s, but he did and without that, more people would not know what the hell Parkinson’s is. I would definitely recommend this book, especially if you know someone with PD or their loved one (which, if you know me or The Husband, you do). Yes, Fox has more resources than the average Parkinson’s patient, but he writes incredibly well about what it’s like to live with the disease and how and why he continues to remain grateful. 4/5 stars.
Poet Maggie Smith is perhaps best known for “Good Bones” (“you can make this place beautiful”). When her marriage of 19 years ended, she struggled to make sense of the loss and to move forward with writing and life. She turned to Twitter where she began posting simple introspective reflections meant to encourage herself — and, as it turned out, many others who found that Maggie’s thoughts resonated with their own difficulties. The result is Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change (Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2020).
This is a small book, one that you can read in less than an hour, and the kind that’s perfect for giving to a friend going through a tough time. And that’s all of us these days. Some of the criticisms I’ve seen in reviews have been that Keep Moving doesn’t contain much that’s revelatory. To that I say that it doesn’t have to; it’s a comforting book, one that feels like having a friend nearby, the kind that’s nice to turn to when you need a bit of encouragement. Some lines that made me feel Smith was talking directly to me:
“Accept that while you crave resolution — an ending to the story, and a happy ending at that — this isn’t how lives work. The arc you’ve learned doesn’t apply, so stop trying to map the events of your life onto it. Just watch, listen, learn. Keep moving.”
And this one:
“Accept that you do not get to choose who loves you, who keeps their promises, who forgives. But you can choose to love, to keep your promises, to forgive. Choose well. Have — and live — your own say. Keep moving.”
And this one:
“Accept that you may never get to know what it means. Accept that there may not be a reason, despite the comfort that reasons provide. Don’t look for meaning in whatever collapsed around you; make meaning by digging yourself out.”
Each post ends with the phrase keep moving, if you haven’t figured that out. They also don’t all begin with “accept that”; it’s only the ones I connected the most with that do.
Have you read any of these? I’d love to know your thoughts or what you have been reading lately.