I’m afraid it’s been too long since I wrote anything new for this, my occasional series of Saturday book recommendations.
Truthfully, I’ve been reading up a storm, but it all felt so weirdly personal. Either I was reading very particular books intended to fuel my own book writing, or I was escaping into novels that seemed either too lightweight or too well known (or both!) to be worth mentioning.
But then I realized something. The only thing really holding me back from writing another addition to this series was pride. Pride because I didn’t feel I’d been reading anything earth-shattering enough, or esoteric enough, or special enough. As if I share book recommendations in this space in order to cultivate a certain self-image.
But pride is so boring. My own pride, especially. So, I’m kicking it aside and telling you, honestly, what I’ve been reading. It’s an oddball pile of books, but I think you might just find something you like. I know I did.
(P.S. These posts contain affiliate links. Find all my book recommendations here.)
I first read A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell months ago on a good friend’s recommendation. Hubbell is a university-librarian-turned-beekeeper in rural Missouri. This book offers four seasons worth of reflections rooted in her mountain home. It’s a quiet book. A plain book. But it sticks with you. Lately, I’ve been rereading it, hoping that some of Hubbell’s no-nonsense, beautifully observant style will wear off on me.
The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is new to me, though it was released a few years ago. Wilson-Hartgrove is probably best known as one of the so-called “New Monastics.” He writes simply and straightforwardly about his choice to stay in an impoverished, urban neighborhood. The book offers an easy introduction to monastic spirituality and what that might look like for us today. That is, it’s easy to read and Wilson-Hartgrove’s storytelling is easy to enjoy, but the stability he describes is hard. The kind of hard I want and need and hope to spend the rest of my life learning.
My love for picture books is well documented in this space. I’ve told you before that I think we push chapter books too often and too early. Quality picture books are not only works of art, but they tend to aim at a higher level of storytelling and language. All the Places to Love by Patricia Maclachlan is no exception.
This one was recommended to me by another friend. It isn’t new, but I’d never encountered it until this year. The art feels slightly dated, but that is a small, small quibble with a beautiful book. This one makes me cry. Every time. It isn’t a sad story; it’s a lovely story. Reading this book you realize just how heart-breakingly beautiful are our small lives and small homes and ordinary days. This book is for anyone who has ever loved some special place, and, especially, for anyone who has ever shared that love of place with another.
I’m reading a lot of heavy, heady stuff right now, but if my own book is inspired by anything I hope it is inspired by this picture book.
Anyone ready for a big, fat, fun novel? Liane Moriarty’s novels always fit the bill. I’ve told you before how much I loved What Alice Forgot, and Moriarty’s latest, Big Little Lies, is another excellent, fun, funny, thought-provoking romp. This one tackles the heavy topic of domestic violence, but does so with such a uniquely hilarious Moriarty touch that you can’t help but be charmed even as you find your eyes being opened, your heart softened.
This isn’t high-art by any stretch of the imagination, but I think Moriarty is a genius.
Tell me, what’s sitting on your shelf these days?
We don’t read poetry any longer, do we?
Oh, a bit here and there, and some of us more than others, but we’re much more likely to end our days with reality television than The Oxford Book of English Verse, aren’t we?
I often wonder why this is. Is it because we are so accustomed to the easy and comfortable we avoid using our spare time for anything that requires real effort? And I won’t fool you. Poetry requires effort. It asks that we meet it at least halfway.
We must quiet our minds (and our stereo speakers). We must slow down (no one ever speed-read a poem). We must re-read (a good poem can’t ever be checked as “read” on our reading lists and tracking apps; poetry happens in the re-reading).
All I really know is that I’ve hesitated to recommend poetry books in this space. I want to make you happy, and I’ve decided happiness means novels, memoirs, cookbooks, and picture books.
I read this article and realized that poetry is worth more than life to some people. They will risk everything for what it gives.
The least I can do is share a few recommendations with you.
Also, I can make this promise – tonight, when my children are (finally) asleep, I will not turn on my television. I will not pick up my big, fat novel. Instead, I will re-read, and I will remember. I will remember that my life is something different, something better, because I have read Yeats and Auden, Bishop and Heaney.
And these. I have read these:
I have read George Herbert.
One of the great English metaphysical poets (poets known for their elaborate imagery), Herbert was a priest in the Church of England and a friend of John Donne. His religious poetry is beautiful, desperate, and honest. But this is not confession (or not merely); it is art. It is art that dramatizes and explores the encounter between the flawed, sinful self and a God who is Love.
Herbert’s poems are intricately crafted. They reward the time we spend with them.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice. – George Herbert
I have read Eavan Boland.
I can’t recommend poetry without recommending the work of this contemporary Irish poet. Boland writes about home, about motherhood, about what it means to create beautiful art out of the raw materials of violence, loss, and the various troubles of history. Her work is accessible, but it is not superficial. It rewards our first reading, but it gives more with subsequent readings.
I suggest picking up a single volume of her work (rather than a collection or the few poems you might find in an anthology). Reading poetry is like music in this regard – poets write poems the way musicians create albums. It is one thing to know a hit single in isolation; it is entirely another to know what has been created when the artist gathers their work into a whole.
I often return to her volume In a Time of Violence. You might start there.
Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in. – Eavan Boland
I have read everything ever published by T. S. Eliot. But, always and especially, I have read Four Quartets.
Eliot was the first poet who ever made me love poetry. I was a teenager, and I was mesmerized by the rhythms of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Now I don’t often go back to Prufrock and his coffee spoons (though the first lines of that poem are impossible for me to forget), but I return, more and more often, in fact, to Four Quartets.
There are times when an imperfect little art (like a quirky little poem) will suffice. It is like us: small yet precious, strange but lovely. There are other times when we need an art that hints at something much bigger and more perfect. Four Quartets is like that for me. It is big enough to move in, big enough to dream in, big enough to inspire your own creativity. It is Art-with-a-capital-A, and some days that is what my own little life needs most of all.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot
Do you read poetry? Why? Why not? I’d love to know.
The muscles in my legs have been achy and sore for two days. No, I didn’t go jogging (horror!). I spent most of Saturday rearranging my books, and it seems I vastly underestimated the after-effects of shuffling books from shelves to floor and back to different shelves.
The big book shuffle was prompted by a single new bookcase. It arrived on Friday, packed in one slender yet unbelievably heavy box. On Saturday morning the three boys tackled it with their respective hammers (plastic for the two-year-old, which pleased him not at all).
Within half an hour I was standing in front of one of the loveliest sights I can imagine: pristine, empty bookshelves.
They didn’t stay empty long. I gathered up the piles of books which have quietly accumulated in the corners of my house, and, after much dusting and a thorough rearranging, discovered that I should have ordered two new bookcases.
No matter. I can’t think of a better way to spend a cloudy, drizzly Saturday than handling (and remembering) each of my books as I slide them into place.
It was only as I carried my poetry collection from family room built-ins to dining room shelves that my pleasure dimmed. I haven’t reached for any of these books in such a long time (not since my last Intro. to Lit. class), and I felt suddenly sad to think of so much treasure sitting untouched, collecting dust.
I had the idea, then, to share some of these poems here on my blog. I grant you, it’s very self-indulgent. But isn’t blogging always that, to some extent?
The thing I’ve long loved most about teaching is the simple act of sharing beautiful things. I’ve missed that.
So, without further ado, a poem for you (inspired by last week’s post on the magic of mirrors):
Miracle Glass Co.
Heavy mirror carried
Across the street,
I bow to you
And to everything that appears in you,
And never again the same way:
This street with its pink sky,
Row of gray tenements,
A lone dog,
Children on rollerskates,
Woman buying flowers,
Someone looking lost.
In you, mirror framed in gold
And carried across the street
By someone I can’t even see,
To whom, too, I bow.
– Charles Simic
This is a perfect ode, in my opinion, for kicking off plans to reacquaint myself with the poetry on my shelves. It reminds me that creating art is often as simple as reframing the everyday (as my sister’s photograph moves us to see peeling paint with new eyes).
Within the gold frame of a poem, the ordinary is transformed. Simic is right. It is a miracle.
Blowing the dust off of a poem and reading it, we bow to the vision it offers, we bow to its maker, the poet, and we remember our own maker, who created us to create.