Warming Up for Summer Reading: May Books

» December 26th, 2020

Okay, fine, it’s late December, but what follows is a brief overview of my May 2020 reading.  I’m sure I’m not alone in finding comfort in literature during the pandemic. And while I did not choose books with any sort of overt connection to the current global crisis, it was amazing how differently I read from the perspective of the moment. It’s a good reminder of why we should always reread the books we love–because our interpretations and observations change depending on where we are, and what is going on, when we engage a text. It’s also important to remember that when reading a book for the first time.










I’ve always found Walter Benjamin hard to decipher. I’ve read Illuminations twice but could only offer  you the most cursory overview of its famous essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Still, I picked up Berlin Childhood on the recommendation of my daughter, who liked it enough to write an essay on it. I confess to still finding it abstruse at times, but Benjamin encourages a interconnected view of time, a kind of vision that never allows the past to be a separate past, but more the fluid and prolific source of an ongoing moment. In the preface, Peter Szondi writes, “almost everything childhood was can be withheld from a person for years, suddenly to be offered him anew as if by chance.” This idea stuck, and has had a great impact on the way I think about Frank Stanford, the poet whose biography I am currently writing.












Edna O’Brien is a sensationally famous Irish writer, best known for her novel Country Girls, and must be into her 80s by now. A legend whom I’d never read. In preparation to read her work, motivated in part by her evident love of James Joyce, I decided to read her memoir. This was a mistake. Country Girl is a gossipy, petty, score-settling book so full of dropped names you begin to trip over them. Does the fact that Mick Jagger once sang her a lullaby matter on any level? It might, I suppose, but what I look for in an artist’s memoir is some heartfelt sense of how they came into their craft, the muses that sung them into creativity. Maybe Jagger’s voice motivated O’Brien to grand literary ambition. But I doubt it. What’s for certain is that her novels, which I have still yet to read, are better.











Refusing to give up on the memoirs of female artists, I immediately picked up Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait after finishing Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls. What a contrast. What a delight.  Paul was the longtime lover of the painter Lucian Freud, who was her teacher and became the father of her son, Frank. In addition to capturing the frisson between eroticism and creativity, Paul forthrightly challenges some of the most basic assumptions about gender politics and sex. Freud, who was almost 30 years her senior, was a notorious womanizer, but this fact never prevented Paul from enhancing her work through the couple’s intense spiritual and artistic bond. It all sits awkwardly in our “woke” moment, what with the famous old man preying on an unknown eighteen-year old female artist, but that is the point–the tension of their relationship fueled her work. When Paul left Freud, she did so mater-of-factly: “I had been displaced. In February 1988 I decided to split with him.” What she never broke away from was her commitment to her family and her art, and this beautiful book soars with descriptions of both.











“You were born the most unfortunate of men,” the shepherd informs Oedipus after he learns has borne children with his mother, murdered his father, and driven his mother to suicide. What an understatement! But that dark reality is precisely what makes the classic Greek tragedy such a powerful reading experience. The sense of impotency one can have in life, the idea of being stuck in the plans of others, or fate, pervades the story. Few readers today go to this play unaware of how it ends, but the process of getting there seems to engage timeless themes in a way that makes the book perpetually relevant and thought provoking. Questions bearing on expertise and trust, inclinations towards conspiracy thinking, and political intrigue all accompany Oedipus on his dark journey to his horrific discovery. The deep decency of King Creon, who forgives and forgets and empathizes, sits alongside Oedipus’s incontrovertible assessment that “I was saved–for some strange and dreadful end.” Watching the world today, the words, and their contrast, resonate.


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