Book Recommendations: Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Today’s book recommendations are a strike against social isolation. This week I found myself reading my way into community by exploring the new book, Summer Snow, by former Poet Laureate Robert Hass alongside an older collection, Unattainable Earth, by the inimitable Czeslaw Milosz.
 
 
Hass worked with Milosz to translate many of the poems in Unattainable Earth, and so that is one way I see community and communion at play in these collections. The long, stunning poem by Hass (from Summer Snow), is an imagining of a conversation between the two poets. I love thinking about how writers think about each other’s lives and minds.
 
 
Milosz himself made a point of creating such communion in Unattainable Earth. In the original Polish version of the book, Milosz translated English-language poems into Polish. In the American version of the book, in which Milosz’s own work is what we receive in translation, Milosz’s poems sit alongside English-language masterpieces by poets such as D. H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman. 
 
 
Just because we’re staying at home doesn’t mean we can’t hang out together. I am grateful to Hass and Milosz for these examples of what happens when poets talk, think, translate, share, and imagine a world together, across continents and centuries and collections.

Camille contributes to the “The Quarantine Files” for the Los Angeles Review of Books

“Last winter, I hardly left the house because it was dangerously cold outside. Sheets of thin ice covered walkways. People — worried about landing in the hospital — hardly socialized for months. There was the winter I fretted about friends and family suffering from conditions over which they and their medical teams had little control. That was the same winter my concerns flared for friends who were foreign nationals. Would my country — whose leadership had proven hostile on countless occasions — directly or indirectly take actions that might cause my friends harm? There was the winter I mourned the direction my nation had taken the past fall. The policies of the new government — and those backing the new government — no longer seemed to have the best interest of the majority of people in mind.”

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Book Recommendation: The Grammar of God

I can’t stop thinking about The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner. The book is on my mind because of the many narratives running right now in public discourse. Narratives that suggest some of us aren’t speaking the same language as others where C-19 is involved. Kushner’s book suggests that often we AREN’T speaking the same language. That we haven’t been consulting the same playbook, even when we might have thought we were. Though Kushner’s book isn’t about C-19, reading The Grammar of God may help you understand how our public discourse has gotten to this point.

Due to variations in translation, the Bible, the text on which we base so many of our culture’s religious and secular principles, often contains drastically different messages as it moves through languages, grammars, and cultures. For many of us who think carefully about language and how we use it, this shouldn’t be a surprising concept. But The Grammar of God is so carefully researched and grippingly told that I love reading Kushner’s explications and revelations.

After spending a lifetime diligently studying the Hebrew Bible, Kushner first read the Bible in English when she was 28. I love her descriptions of her shock on encountering some of the differences between the Hebrew and English Bibles. She becomes obsessed by these questions, consulting many translations, researching the lives of translators through time, considering what the differences in meaning and interpretation might reveal. This could all be esoteric, sleep-inducing stuff, but in Kushner’s skilled hands the research and analysis becomes the base material for a page-turning, emotionally-resonant book. The ways she weaves her personal experiences alongside those of her own family and of Biblical and linguistic scholars through time is nothing short or mesmerizing. (The story she tells of her grandfather toward the end of the book brought me to tears.)

You can get The Grammar of God most easily via ebook, so it might be the perfect book to buy if you’re avoiding deliveries because you’re worried about the virus.

Book recommendations is back! Minor Feelings

 

I’ve been away from sharing what I’m reading for what seems like a long time. But now I’m back, with #bookrecommendations!

I have major feelings—It’s so good! So smart and powerful! So beautifully written! So necessary! So insightful! Breathtaking!—about this phenomenal book, Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong (One World Books: 2020).

It arrived at my doorstep at the very beginning of our state’s stay at home orders. Were I not the mother of a young child I am suddenly now homeschooling, I would have read the book in one complete sitting. Instead, I spread the reading over 3 ravenous days. These pages burn with the fire of truth and necessary revelation. Cathy Park Hong understands America in the way Baldwin understands America, with the observant eye of a scorned but needed, even sometimes loved, child. Perhaps you know that feeling, when the world around you says everything is hunky dory, and you think, So why do I feel so dissonant today, like this isn’t all going as well as everyone else seems to think? Those are the minor feelings of which the book’s title speaks.

The subtitle of this collection is “An Asian American Reckoning” and much of Minor Feelings speaks specifically to an Asian American experience (I am careful here not to write THE Asian American experience) that is not mine and which I am grateful to learn more about. But for much of the book I was nodding along. Yes! Yes! Yes! I see you! And not only because I have lived many of the places and experiences the author has lived. Even when our lives do not overlap, she has drawn her world so well I cannot help but come to know it, feel it, see it. This is a work of honest, open wisdom. I am grateful to have the memory of reading Minor Feelings during these isolated, generally dissonant, times.