This month, our editors recommend books that give us access to racially, economically, psychologically, historically or artistically diverse voices. These books give us fresh and intimate perspective on lives that feel very distant from our own. I recently got around to reading Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, in which the title character struggles to move beyond her wandering past of hand-to-mouth living and accept an unlikely new life as the wife of an old minister in a respectable Iowa town. After spending so many pages inside Lila’s head, I occasionally found myself irritated with her stubborn inability to trust, to be glad, to let go of the old habit of loneliness. I wanted her to see comfort and stability and affection as gifts that she might keep—not as things that she might yet have to abandon. Even in the book’s final pages, however, when Lila has become a mother, her past is still a dominant part of her present, and a part of the future that she imagines with her child. Robinson gives us what seems like true insight into the psyche of an orphan for whom living has always meant surviving, and for whom “home” must always be provisional—even if the reader wishes it were otherwise.
Maria Scala, editor-in-chief, writes, “This month’s theme calls to mind someone I’ve long admired for her style, energy, and unique perspective: feminist Beat writer, mother, and activist Diane di Prima. My introduction to her work was her semi-autobiographical Memoirs of a Beatnik, an unabashedly open account of a young woman’s creative and sensual coming of age in 1950s New York. The granddaughter of Italian immigrants, di Prima was born and raised in Brooklyn, and moved to Greenwich Village where she formed friendships with other Beat writers such as Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, and Audre Lorde. In the late sixties, she migrated west to San Francisco, and has remained a fixture in the Bay Area writing and teaching community. In her inaugural address as San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in 2009, di Prima read her poem ‘Song for Baby-o, Unborn,’ which she wrote when she ‘decided to go ahead and have a baby, to be a single mom’ at the age of 22, in 1957:
when you break thru
a poet here
what one would choose.
The young mother-to-be goes on to tell her baby that she can’t promise that she won’t ever go hungry or feel sad, but she can offer her enough love to break her heart forever. Like so many followers of di Prima’s career, I am drawn to both the stark realism of her writing and the passionate ideals that emerge from it.”
Fiction Editor Suzanne Kamata adds, “I just finished reading Up From the Sea by Leza Lowitz, which was inspired by the triple disaster (earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown) which struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011. Her debut as a solo novelist (she’s the co-author with husband Shogo Oketani of Jet Black and the Ninja Wind) chronicles the terror and sorrow of the disaster and subsequent days. An award-winning poet, she has chosen to tell this story in verse. The short lines work well to capture the urgency of the quake and its aftermath, while the white space on the page gives the reader a measure of relief. For the record, Lowitz is a long-time resident of Japan, and, as she notes in her afterword, she experienced the earthquake firsthand. She later traveled to the disaster zone to volunteer, to bear witness, and to interview survivors. Her proximity to the event and her familiarity with Japanese culture lend verisimilitude to this ultimately hopeful story.”
Alissa McElreath, senior editor and columns editor, recommends another unique piece of nonfiction: “I just finished reading Wes Moore’s book The Other Wes Moore, about the lives of two young African-American men who are unrelated to each other, but who bear the same name. Author Wes Moore is a Rhodes scholar and former White House Fellow, and the other Wes Moore is a convicted drug-dealer, now in prison serving a life sentence for felony murder. How could two young men the same age, from similar backgrounds, end up in such different places? Through a series of meetings and correspondence with incarcerated Moore, author Moore explores what can make a difference in one man’s life—family (including a fierce and strong mother), a support network, mentors, and education—and how the lack of those critical stabilizing forces contributed to the other Wes Moore’s destruction. Moore’s book compels us to examine our contributions to the communities in which we live, and offers a sobering look at how wrong choices can have devastating outcomes that may, in the end, affect us all.”
Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani concludes, “I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved when my twin sons were infants. At that vulnerable stage of motherhood, when my babies’ every cough and hiccough gave me a start, and every too-long nap with too-quiet breathing filled me with terror, this book hit a tender nerve. Imagine, I thought—imagine not a fate worse than death, but a fate so terrible a mother would take her child’s life to save her from it. The true horrors of slavery had never before struck me in such a visceral, heartrending way. I don’t remember a lot of details from the book, these ten years later, but I am still haunted by its imagery, and the long and horrifying history of our nation, as Sethe is haunted by Beloved.”
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