While staying caught up on (accurate) COVID-19 news is important, it’s also a healthy idea to unplug. Hyperallergic staff are all working from home these days and we thought we’d share what we’ve been reading in our private moments offline. From books of essays and poetry to recipes and art books, here is our list.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (One World, 2020)
In her first book of nonfiction essays, Cathy Park Hong’s prose is fresh, often revelatory, and incredible for the way it touches on some very open wounds, particularly in relation to the way racialized bodies function in the United States. In one chapter, her investigation into the death of avant-garde artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is riveting, even if it reveals some of the horrors not only of her rape and murder in New York’s Puck Building in 1982, but also the awful responses to her death.
In her chapter called “Stand Up,” Hong writes, “The ethnic literary project has always been a humanist project in which nonwhite writers must prove they are human beings who feel pain.” You can tell she writes these words as a way to thumb her nose at categories, an attitude that pops up time and again throughout these pages.
Reading this during my own self-quarantine, I found the author’s words comforting, if only because she does such a good job capturing the general anxiety that seems to permeate everything nowadays. Her words made me think about where our bodies end and society begins, and how that’s not always clear, perhaps by design. —Hrag Vartanian
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner Book Company, 2018)
I’ve used the recent time to really tackle my reading list. I just finished Jesmyn Ward’s luminous novel — and I don’t use that adjective lightly — Sing, Unburied, Sing. Written in strikingly gorgeous prose, it’s a magical realist telling of a troubled family in the deep South. Its compassion for its characters — from deeply caring to deeply flawed adults, and the children impacted by their abilities to care for them — shines. Ward managed to meld many touchstones of life in Mississippi, from generational spiritual predispositions, to a poignant discussion about addiction and death. My mother is immunosuppressed and has been avoiding public spaces for longer than some of the population due to COVID-19, so we’ve started a two-person book club and are next tackling Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi. I would encourage everyone to start these sorts of remote literary circles to stay connected with loved ones and friends during anxious times. —Jasmine Weber
Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 2019)
I admire those who think this is a good time to catch up on headier reading projects, like, say, finally making a real dent in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I am not that person. When I am stressed, I cook. Instead of stocking up on toilet paper, I cleared out the spice shelves and stocked up on different grains, and I’m thinking of bringing my food blog back. Alison Roman’s latest cookbook, Nothing Fancy, includes recipes I can make with stuff I already have at home and ingredients that can be easily shifted around (broccoli-chorizo pasta could probably be kale-sausage spaghetti, for instance). Hopefully the virus will be over before I can work my way through this whole book, but if not, challenge accepted. —Valentina Di Liscia
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History by Fred S. Kleiner (Cengage Learning, 2019)
The first time I encountered Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, one of the go-to textbooks used to teach very traditional art history, was in an AP class in high school. Now, as a master’s student in art history at Hunter College, we have to study for something called the “comprehensive exam,” lovingly known as “the comp”: an image identification test of 25 artworks chosen at random from nearly 500 works from antiquity to the present. As I stay home for the foreseeable future, I’ll be sprawled on the floor hand-writing flashcards and finally studying for the comp. —Valentina Di Liscia
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press, 2019)
Ocean Vuong’s first novel, which has been described as “devastatingly beautiful,” is one of those books that’s stared back at me — unopened — from my bedside table for months; I’ve been delaying a deep dive into it until I had the emotional bandwidth to reckon with it. At its core, it’s a deeply affective letter from a son to his mother, colored by memories of migration, loss, intergenerational trauma, and the kind of love that leaves you in tears, alternating between deep gratitude and rage. An award-winning poet, Vuong was born in Saigon and raised in Hartford, CT, and his poems often explore subjects tied to loss, transformation, and desire; On Earth further cements his status as a major star of contemporary literature. What resonates with me most about his latest text is the way in which it stews simultaneously on what it means to come of age as an immigrant’s kid — when your role is often split between translator, peacekeeper, and a kid just trying to be a kid — and the tricky politics of coming out in a household where being queer is decidedly not part of the formula it takes to achieve the coveted “American dream.” —Dessane Lopez Cassell
Video Art: The First 50 Years by Barbara London (Phaidon Press, 2020)
Another text that’s been sitting on my shelf for a few months, beckoning me over with its hip reflective design, is Barbara London’s Video Art: The First 50 Years. It’s nearly impossible to work in the field of moving-image curation in New York without encountering London’s work; her legacy as an early champion of video artists like Nam June Paik, Mary Lucier, Shigeko Kubota, and Joan Jonas remains influential in the field, not least for the role she played in bringing video art into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art — no small feat in the 1970s, when the medium was still fighting to be taken seriously. While I’m only a few chapters in, I’m looking forward to continuing to work through this text, which so far seems to offer a very unique account of a curator’s attempts to take stock of a field that has grown exponentially, and the role she played in its development herself. —Dessane Lopez Cassell
Welcome to America by Linda Boström Knausgård, translated by Martin Aitken (World Editions, 2019)
I just read this book in two sittings. Granted, it’s short, but it’s also profoundly absorbing. Welcome to America is centered on a young girl who stops talking “when growing began to take up too much space inside” of her. I’m a big fan of books that seriously reflect on girlhood, a topic not often touched upon in mainstream literature, and this book does so with great depth. Boström Knausgård is also a poet, and you can sense this in her deceivingly simple prose that has been translated from Swedish into English by Martin Aitken with punch and clarity. Most of us have heard about the other Knausgård (Linda Boström’s former husband) but I’m hoping attention will shift. (As far as I’m concerned, Welcome to America is far more worth your time than the 3,500-page series with its eye-roll-inducing title, My Struggle.) —Elisa Wouk Almino
My Favorite Things by Maira Kalman (Harper Design, 2014)
Whenever I’m feeling a bit of the blues, Maira Kalman is the person to pick me up. Her bright gouache illustrations of everyday delights are reminders of what makes this world so breathtaking. In this book, she visits the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and chooses objects that brought her “a gasp of delight.” Around these objects she creates wonderful narratives about love, loss, and life. She takes you on walks through cities — something Kalman loves to do, and which I imagine she currently misses very much. Towards the end of her book, she writes, “We are alive and that is glorious. All we have.” —Elisa Wouk Almino
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019)
This is a nonfiction book about Earth’s geological record — how literally everything that has ever happened to, on, and/or inside this planet has left a mark in some stone, somewhere. Macfarlane explores this with a sense of genuine wonder that’s rare in science writing. He doesn’t merely make complex phenomena comprehensible for the lay reader, but also lays out the beauty and terror of our world in an immediate way. It reads less like a nature book than it does a whispered campfire story. —Dan Schindel
Exhalation by Ted Chiang (Knopf Publishing Group, 2019)
A Ted Chiang short story is a rare, precious occurrence, and a collection all the more so. Few modern science fiction writers are as simultaneously accessible, intelligent, and humane as he is. Many of the various stories in this book address free will, or the lack of it, and the attendant philosophical conundrums the concept poses. He does so through scenarios that are at turns mythic (a time portal in medieval West Asia), whimsical (a Victorian inventor devising a steampunk robot nanny), and disquieting (a world in which Young Earth Creationism is scientifically true … but Earth isn’t the center of the universe). —Dan Schindel
The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (New York Review of Books, 2010)
I have been having such a fun time reading The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, a 1947 novel which NYRB Classics republished in 2010. It’s a subversive Western about a sister and brother (ages eight and 10) in Southern California who, bored by their buttoned-up family and routine, are sent to spend summers on their uncle’s ranch in Colorado. The untamed experience of being on the ranch gives them the chance to go a little wild, and becomes their beloved escape from the monotony of life in California — until the changes of adolescence intervene. Stafford’s description of childhood is so uncanny and astute that it makes me laugh out loud, which is a rare treat. Stafford is best known as a short-story writer, and I think I’ll pick up her Collected Stories next. —Ellie Duke
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (New Press, 2010)
I’m reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. It’s a book that was first published 10 years ago and has been, since then, part of the conversation on mass incarceration specifically, and the movement to reform the criminal justice system in the United States in general. It purports to show, through a methodical sifting of the evidence, how Black men’s widespread involvement in the criminal justice system is evidence of a new racial caste system at work. It feels like a book that I need to read to understand a part of our culture that I rarely see, but is nevertheless foundational to how we live. —Seph Rodney
Neither Caterpillar Nor Butterfly by David Unger (Es Que Somos Muy Pobres Press, 1986)
I am also reading a small book of poetry by David Unger, Neither Caterpillar Nor Butterfly. It came into my possession because Unger gave it to me when I was recently at his apartment for dinner with he and his wife Anne Gilman. Unger has been a poet and a translator and is now a novelist, so the book feels like a gift from his past life. Neither Caterpillar Nor Butterfly seems to be a record of the poet’s travels around Europe and Latin America. Reading it gives me a chance to think about places beyond my own circumstance. Unger’s voice is quite placid and quietly observant, even of his own feelings. There’s a funny passage in the poem “September”: “You asked why / I hadn’t written: well, I didn’t write because I / don’t like arm wrestling …” —Seph Rodney
The Mystic Masseur by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 2002)
I discovered the work of V. S. Naipaul way too late in life, but what a joy it has been since then. Interlaced with exquisite humor and inventive use of the English language (rooted in the Trinidadian vernacular), this story about a frustrated writer who turns from being a failed primary school teacher to a charlatan healer, and later to a popular politician, will open your eyes to what prose can do. —Hakim Bishara
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