Reading for Respite by Angela Winsor
Friday, 23 October 2020
In May, a series of complicated and boring events led me to Greensboro three months before I actually needed to be here for the start of my new degree program. While I would’ve been on lockdown anywhere, I was suddenly in isolation in an entirely strange, new place. I’d just finished up, over Zoom, a rigorous and exhausting Master’s degree. I started a solitary summer job teaching middle school and high school English entirely online, and developing a new kind of curriculum until my eyes couldn’t stare at a screen for one minute longer. And like so many others, I was grieving our individual and collective losses in the wake of the pandemic. Somewhere in all of this there was some magical thinking, too: I imagined I’d be a proactive writer, putting all my grief and isolation to page so that I’d arrive at the first day of my MFA with something to show for myself. This did not happen. The brain fog, the screen fatigue, the emotional burnout made it feel impossible—this has been the year of the burnout.
Instead, when I absolutely could not write, I let myself read. I read for pleasure and for respite. I recharged myself by sitting in the language and poetry of so many writers I admire. And it worked: I’ve found so much relief in the books I’ve read over the last 6 months. This isn’t to say that I was drawn to light and easy reads—the opposite is often true, in fact. But what they’ve all had in common is a display of craftsmanship that left me awestruck, reminding me of why I love to write. What follows are just three of the books I’ve read (or reread) over the last few months that brought such relief; I slowed my reading down just to stay with them a little longer.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Over the summer, I brought Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s poem, “Mosquitos,” to one of the classes I was teaching. After reading it aloud to my students, one of them typed in the Zoom chat, “Oh. I get that! I know how that feels.” I was pleased, but not surprised. What often feels true about Nezhukumatathil’s writing is that while it’s deeply personal, it expands outward and invites us in. She’s incredibly generous in that way and this new book of hers is further evidence of this generosity.
World of Wonders is a collection of personal essays that offer timely and beautiful discussions about identity, belonging, and some of the strange and lovely creatures that populate our world. Nezhukumatathil’s writing draws heart-felt connections between the personal and the natural. She knows what it feels like to be moved, to be transplanted, to be treated unfairly and unkindly, to grieve environmental destruction and a changing climate. But repeatedly, she looks to the landscape around her and the awe-inspiring, even goofy, natural world. She finds something to learn from it. A corpse flower helps her “clear out the sleaze” of the dating world. From the potoo, a bird with a famously chilling cry and penchant for stillness, she learns how to be still, how to love “a little tranquility,” or “a little tenderness in your quiet.” In “Axolotl,” she writes:
An axolotl can help you smile as an adult even if someone on your tenure committee puts his palms together as if in prayer every time he sees you off-campus, Namaste! even though you’ve told him several times already that you actually attend a Methodist church.
In these quietly heart-wrenching essays, it’s as if Nezhukumatathil has written a manual for how to keep loving the world today, as if she’s waving her hands and saying, “There’s still good here. Look at the whale shark, the touch-me-nots, the flamingo.” And she does it all in a lyrical prose that’s so full of music and nostalgia, it begs to be read aloud. What this book offers us by way of respite is exactly what the title is promising: a reminder of wonderful and astonishing things. I’ve needed this reminder.
I’m being negligent if I don’t also mention the illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura that are scattered throughout the book. They’re such warm depictions of the creatures Nezhukumatathil writes about, each one making me smile. There’s a Southern cassowary that I swear looks just like an old professor I once had and a pair of dancing frogs that reminded me so much of my grandmother’s frog figurine collection; I nearly tore the page out so I could keep it close (I didn’t—couldn’t—but I thought about it).
Core Samples from the World by Forrest Gander (With Photography by Raymond Meeks, Graciela Iturbide and Lucas Foglia)
I briefly met Forrest Gander a few years ago. It was the sort of meet and greet that takes place after a reading where I’d imagine, under normal circumstances, he’d have no reason to remember me. Except that he actually might because I ambushed him with a hug. To be clear—you should not do this. Don’t abruptly hug strangers. But he was very gracious in the face of my own awkwardness. I’m grateful he laughed beneath his fedora, a feather tucked into the hat. He let me gush about this book, not even his newest book, but the one I return to like a balm when I need it. This was the first time I’d met, in-person, a writer who I so urgently needed to thank for their work. I’ve since learned to control my enthusiasm.
The poems and essays in Core Samples from the World contemplate empathy and concern for others as Gander moves around the world to China, Mexico, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Chile. Formally, the poems expand across these pages, with breaks and breaths that feel visceral. His language is concentrated and precise, full of tension between what’s familiar and foreign. As these poems celebrate curiosity, they also demonstrate what it means to look at the world through an ethical lens that’s bent towards kindness. He’s paired up with three renowned photographers in this collection, too, who each bring new shape and context to Gander’s writing. The book never stops being surprising, it never stops moving. I craved it in the spring when we moved into lockdown. I read it in the summer when I was alone in a new city. And I read it again this fall when I needed respite from hours of online meetings. Gander is so good at place, I’m always grateful to find that each new reading of Core Samples transports me—like an act of escapism when we can’t actually go anywhere. I’m grateful, too, for the ways this collection centers human dignity and connection across borders. Remember when we sat at stranger’s tables? Or when we bore witness to each other’s lives in-person, not across screens? Gander writes, “To welcome the/ strangeness of/ strangers/ not versions/ simply of/ my own/ thought.” I read it and think: exactly.
Oksana, Behave! By Maria Kuznetsova
The book cover of Maria Kuznetzova’s, Oksana, Behave!, has become my favorite book cover. Beneath the title sits a prominent and pointed middle finger on a young girl’s hand. In some ways, that’s about all I need to tell you about this book that I reread over the summer because I wanted to spend more time with these characters. In this coming of age novel, Oksana and her family leave Kiev and arrive in Florida when she’s seven years old. From there, the displacement is seemingly endless as they leave Florida for Ohio, Ohio for New York, and as Oksana leaves her family for college and jobs that take her all over the US. Oksana barrels through mishaps and relationships with a longing for something she never really had—a deep connection to her native country, culture, and family history. While this book moves so efficiently—each chapter is structured almost like a self-contained short story—it’s cast of characters are ones you want to linger with. There’s a kind and generous father who is likely a genius, but who must start his career over when he arrives in the US. A brilliant, if sometimes less kind, mother who is doing her best to build and rebuild a home. A red-headed grandmother who loves to be in love and whose complicated relationship with Oksana is a driving force for the plot.
Maria Kuznetsova visited a class I took early last spring (when the world was an entirely different place) and mentioned how she’d thought about engaging some of the great Russian literary figures like Chekhov, Tolstoy, Akhmatova—the novel begins with an epigraph by Dostoyevsky. I think of these Russian writers and their devastating stories and poems, or their beautifully strange characters and passion, and I can see all of that here in Kuznetsova’s novel. Like some of the romantic, blundering characters of Russian literature, Oksana is fierce and memorable, if also blundering. But this novel is uniquely Kuznetsova’s, a voice that is hers alone.
Here’s what else the novel is: hilarious. While the story brings us, again and again, to moments that feel completely devastating on the page, it’s told with a brilliant irreverence. Kuznetsova has written a voice here that’s so sharp, it’s been ringing out in my head for months. Oksana herself is indeed a funny, and often horribly-behaved, person. Her mother and grandmother have nicknames for her—Little Devil, Infinite Imbecile—and these turn out to be surprisingly apt. Even so, I’m never not rooting for Oksana. While this isn’t necessarily a story about character redemption, this deeply-human narrator does learn and grow. Read this book for some immersion into the truly-funny world of one of the more endearingly irreverent characters I’ve read in a while. Read it for the bad decisions Oksana makes and her cathartic, if questionable, relationships. Or read it for the tenderness that always happens between the irreverence and the empathy that’s amplified by it.
Angela Winsor is an an MFA candidate in Fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.