A friend recently expressed happy surprise that The Age of Phillis, a collection of poetry by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers published last year, continues to get wide praise and attention. I now know why, having picked up the book after our conversation — Jeffers, with remarkable insight and deep reflection, illuminates the life and times of Phillis Wheatley, “the first African woman to publish a book of poetry this side of the Atlantic” (via Jeffers). Phillis Wheatley’s accomplished poems were published in 1773 while the enslaved author lived with her owners in Boston. How is it that 18 white men allowed the publication? What are the truths that have been ignored by historians? Jeffers researched Phillis Wheatley for 15 years. Her striking poems breathe life into Phillis’s childhood in West Africa, her relationship with her white American owners, and her marriage to a free black man, John Peters. It’s an insistent, heartfelt story, one that’s especially perfect for Black History Month by its past and present truths.
Another book of surprising reflection and power that I read these recent weeks is Massimo Recalcati’s The Night in Gethsemane: On Solitude and Betrayal. It’s a mere 93 pages, originating in a talk the author, a noted Italian psychoanalyst, gave to the Bose Monastic Community. It’s a profoundly enlightening meditation on what it means to suffer “nameless anguish” and find an affirmative way in the midst of it. “During that night [Jesus] encounters the deepest roots of prayer…prayer that is the handing over of himself to his own destiny… Isn’t this perhaps the ultimate, most profound, and unexpected meaning of Gethsemane? And isn’t this what’s at stake on every human pathway in life?” While it’s a book to read anytime of the year, it’s particularly significant during this season of Lent, the six weeks before Easter.
March books I’m looking forward to reading
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, translated by Frank Wynne, received the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, an offshoot of the esteemed Prix Goncourt literary award in France for which lycée students read the finalists and vote on the winner. That in itself fascinates me. It’s like a secondary Pulitzer Prize in fiction being judged and awarded by high school students. Kirkus Reviews writes intriguingly of the novel, “Where are you from? Zeniter’s family saga addresses this question and a more difficult one: What if you don’t know?” The protagonist Naïma understands her Algerian roots through her grandmother, but there are secrets, and she’s driven to know more. It’s a novel I’m anticipating will be something to sink into. Likely I’ll be writing more about it. To be published March 23.
Jo Ann Beard came to literary fame with “The Fourth State of Matter,” a personal essay published in The New Yorker about the 1991 shooting rampage at The University of Iowa by an embittered graduate student who failed to receive an academic award. Beard’s friends and colleagues were among the victims. Ever since reading her essay, and her debut collection The Boys of My Youth, I’ve watched for her work because I’ve never forgotten her breath-taking style. So, not surprising, I’m excited to read the nine essays in Festival Days. The title essay is described in the book’s summary as “a searing journey through India that brings into focus questions of mortality and love.” And if you never read her famous New Yorker essay, here’s the link to it. Festival Days will be available March 16.
Another novel of family secrets, this one involving patrimony, Antonio by Beatriz Bracher, translated by Adam Morris, follows a protagonist who searches for answers, working with information from three confidantes who tell him different versions of the facts. From the novel’s description: “Like a Faulkner novel, Beatriz Bracher’s brilliant Antonio shows the expansiveness of past events and the complexity of untangling long-buried secrets.” Publisher’s Weekly says the story “takes a dazzling look at the invisible burdens that haunt a well-to-do family in contemporary Brazil,” and calls this second novel by Bracher “spellbinding” and “surprising.” To be published March 6.
Coda: a final recommendation
I had intended to end there, with Antonio, but this one book won’t let me alone; it clamors to be mentioned, as it tempts me from my reading table, the novel Cathedral. It’s a monster at just over 600 pages, but the print style is open, the font not tiny, so it doesn’t look overwhelming. Cathedral just came out, end of January, and it’s one of those books that keeps pulling at me like that person who just won’t take “no” as the answer to an invite. Publisher’s Weekly calls the novel “ambitious and satisfying” and says: “Six hundred pages sounds long, but this deeply human take on a medieval city and its commerce and aspirations, its violent battles and small intimacies, never feels that way.” The construction of a cathedral in the 12th and 13th centuries stands at the center of this fictional story, pulling together a swath of characters “whose fortunes are inseparable from the shifting political factions and economic interests that are vying for supremacy” (via the book’s description). Kirkus Reviews writes, “A thoroughly engrossing, beautifully told look at human frailty.” Both give the novel a starred review.
I’m not sure who/what’s going to win here. I’m in the middle of Red Comet, the phenomenal biography of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. It clocks in at 900+ pages, hence my reluctance to pick up a new 600+ page book, but I thought I’d share Cathedral for all of you.