Many of the books in my February reading stack also fit with the celebration of independent publishers #ReadIndies hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy this month: Archipelago Books, QC Fiction, Nimbus Books, Tin House, Duke University Press, and Allery Editions (links below). Later this month, I’ll chat more about independent publications too.
Archipelago Books’ publications, including Scholastique Mukasonga’s Igifu (2010; Trans. Jordan Stump, 2020), are immediately recognizable on a shelf, even from a distance. Their earth-toned covers on high-quality paper, soft covers with folded flaps, an emphasis on women’s voices, dedication to overlooked or infrequently told stories: they stand out. This collection contains five stories: Igifu, The Glorious Cow, Fear, The Curse of Beauty, and Grief. I’ll have more to say about them in the upcoming spring issue of Quarterly Short Stories.
Each of QC Fiction’s offerings presents a distinct voice. The Woman in Valencia by Annie Perreault (2018; Trans. Ann Marie Boulanger, 2021) swiftly creates a mood. Orders and Subscriptions available here (this title is currently scheduled for publication on March 21).
Mostly in plain-speak, with the occasional well-placed descriptor (like “irascible” or “splintering”), the prose moves readers steadily through half the story and then sprints to the end—technically, marathons. The runner clocks her progress from the starting line past the fortieth kilometre, gathering momentum in her desire to locate herself in relationship to a key absence. When is movement progress, what do we search for when we travel? How does stagnancy propel us forward, how might an embrace make us disappear?
When Laure was six, she and her mother, Claire, witnessed a tragedy; it affected them both deeply but differently. The Woman in Valencia contemplates the distance between the pain you feel and the pain you witness, the boundaries between selfhood and loved ones, what separates us and what unites us, and how we move through our lives—sometimes as though we are floating or swimming through the water, sometimes as though we are suspended or falling through the air.
(Readers who enjoy classic film, Spanish landmarks and tourist destinations, and mother-daughter stories will cheer from the sidelines. Observe infrequent metaphors, like the hotel described as a “rabbit hutch made up of perfectly aligned cages” or a tote bag described as a “brainbox”, so fully containing all the things that represent the woman who lugs it around. Poetic lapses: “Time had marched on over their skin. The cuts had closed, healed, faded.” And patterns: moles on a thigh like small pinheads in flesh and a showerhead dotted with tiny pinholes.)
Carol Bruneau’s a candidate for my MustReadEverything list; I’ve only dabbled so far, except for her 1996 collection of linked stories, After the Angel Mill, which truly is exceptional. Like Elizabeth Strout, Bruneau attends to subtle details in quiet lives, often permeated by loss and loneliness, sometimes punctuated by longing and love. She also reminds me of Amanda Craig and Joan Clark, for her astute analysis of relations between the sexes, in and out of the context of marriage. A Circle on the Surface (via Atlantic Canada’s Nimbus Publishing in 2018) is on my stack to read as background before her new novel, a fictionalized biography of artist Maud Lewis, which looks fascinating.
Having barely begun Eman Quotah’s Bride of the Sea (Tin House, 2021), all I can comment on is the complex storyline spanning from 1970 to 2018. Like Perreault’s novel above, one parent is absent, and the child separated from them constructs a life around that absence. “Spanning more than four decades and two continents, Bride of the Sea unravels and illuminates family secrets, rivalries, and estrangements against the backdrops of the Gulf War, 9/11, and a rapidly changing world.” So far the style reminds me a little of Vendela Vida and Nell Freudenberger.
I’ve already written about Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over (2019) here. Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World: A Memoir (2015) is written in spare prose, its short chapters daring to encapsulate a life. Although written in the wake of her longtime partner’s death, Ficre Ghebreyesus, the volume is more about living than dying:
“The ones we may come to love have been born by the time we start longing for them, and so my beloved and I came onto this earth in March and in May of 1962, halfway around the world from each other. Then in 1996 we came together, one family who arrived in America as Eritrean refugees who had never been slaves, the other who landed one hundred, and two hundred, and three hundred years ago, slaves and free, from Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean.
Every beautiful day we lived, every single beautiful day.”
Alexander’s memoir and her collected poems (see below) were published by mainstream big presses, but the individual collections that predated them were mostly published by Graywolf, pride and joy of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on Style (published by Duke University Press, 2020) showcases the author’s fondness for books about writing. Not all writers like to read about writing; even among that group, however, are writers who have been compelled to write about writing (perhaps nudged in that direction by an agent, publisher, employer, or a dwindling bank account). Kumar’s not in that club; he loves that kind of book and his love of writing is matched by his love of reading; he discusses books about writing (his favourites at length) and other books as well. He quotes often but not extensively and his magpie approach to craft makes this a satisfying read for curious writers and bookish folk.
Elizabeth Alexander’s Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 landed on my TBR thanks to “Praise Song for the Day”, which she read at Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential inauguration. I’ve written about a couple of her other poems here too. Crave Radiance is an excellent place to begin, and those readers who think they aren’t poetry readers will be surprised to find her work accessible and narrative-driven. She reminds me of Muriel Rukeyser, simultaneously personal and political.
Riad Sattouf’s L’Arabe de futur 2: Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1984-1985) is published by the independent French publisher, Allary Editions, which publishes fifteen titles a year (the fifth volume in this graphic memoir series appears in their most recent catalogue). One of the reasons this series works for me, despite my uneven French-language skills, is that many panels contain an expository sentence at the top, with dialogue below (and in a few frames to follow) to illustrate. (But even so, my struggle with nouns adds a layer of unintentional humour when I misunderstand a scene’s core concept.) Carrying on from the first volume, our narrator is six years old and confronting a series of new situations in Syria with his mother and father. He remains a sensitive soul as he begins school, not knowing the words to the patriotic songs and not wearing the proper uniform, where he is accused of being a Jew. There are so many different ways to be vulnerable in this narrative, so many variations of powerlessness, but his curiosity and determination carry readers through: life in Homs is difficult but not hopeless.
Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964 (Ed. Emily Bernard, 2001). Through watching some videos about Hughes and other African American writers on Kanopy a couple of years ago, I learned who Carl Van Vechten was and why the letters he exchanged with Hughes would be of interest. A passionate supporter of Harlem Renaissance figures, his immersion in literary life makes the letters not only bookish but creates a sense of community that provides a remarkable backdrop and broadens the usual scope of a collection of letters. (But I enjoy reading collections of letters, even if they are more intimate and insular, so this is of interest, but not necessary for my enjoyment.)
My reading in February has been varied and sprawling. I’ve got several new books from the library now, too, so March is looking promising as well.