This Week In Books: Too Small For the Occasion

John Keats reading a book of poetry, after portrait by Joseph Severn. English poet, 1795-1821. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

I’m sitting here trying to write up my little “This Week in Books” list, and it’s a real problem, because the literary corona-articles I saved last week already seem… slight. As in, too small for the occasion; preposterously hedged with absurd little silver linings. Re-reading one article I’d saved for my list, I ended up having to ask myself, is it actually ok to conclude that the typhus scene in Jane Eyre demonstrates how pandemics can be beneficial unstructured time for children!? But this isn’t me being critical, ok, this is me saying: that Jane Eyre article is already 10 days old, and what’s happening now is, the exponential growth of the disaster has made all these corona-articles floating in its wake appear smaller and smaller at a similarly accelerated rate. Last week seems so tiny; last month is minuscule. I dare you to try reading anything from February about the coronavirus; it feels sort of like going insane!

The real problem with the literary corona genre, to be honest, is that as the days go by, and more “essential” workers sicken and die, I feel my interest in anything about corona not written by or about essential workers kind of fading. The travails of lockdown are real, of course, but the thing to keep in mind about lockdown is that it is safety. There’s only so much we can complain about this before we start to reveal something… unpleasant… about ourselves; before we begin to align ourselves with what’s being done to the “essential” working class in this country. The mass sacrifice. It’s like the government is sending soldiers into combat with no guns, or something; like the Battle of Stalingrad, but for no particular reason!? I saw a tweet by a garbage collector who said that a passerby yelled at him for wearing a mask because he doesn’t deserve it as much as a healthcare worker. I saw a tweet quoting a month-old Facebook post by a bus driver worrying that his job will endanger him, with an addendum that he has already died of the virus. I see photo after photo of “essential” workers with no masks or PPE of any kind and think to myself that this cannot possibly be okay. Two weeks ago, the FedEx guy was parked outside our apartment — and we were watching, because any time a truck or something pulls up in the street that’s entertainment for us now — when suddenly he screamed, and I mean really goddamn screamed, to no one and to every one of us who was peeking at him out our windows: “What are we even doing out here!!??” The silence that followed was profound.

Doctors and nurses need PPE desperately, but also, so does everyone who’s still at work! So demand not only that your governments provide PPE for your healthcare workers, but for your garbage collectors, too. Please!

That all being said, I’ve still got a few literary corona reads here for you. I’m not trying to, I don’t know, make a grand statement. Just a small statement. I’m voicing a concern — a tiny but exponentially growing concern — that in a couple weeks this will all seem insane.

1. “Anxiety and the Writers I’ve Been Thinking of in a Time of Crisis…” by Lee Rourke, 3:AM Magazine

Lots of magazines have been publishing lockdown dispatches from their contributors. I read this one at, honestly, 3 a.m., and it felt like a lot. “Each morning I look at my hands: they are red raw with over-washing. The skin is dry and peeling, bursting with potential sores.”

2. “When the World Stops, Traveling in John Keats’s ‘Realms of Gold’” by Frances Mayes, The New York Times

Frances Mayes zooms in on a peculiar slice of literary-disease time. Just four months before his death from tuberculosis, and while on his way to Italy to attempt to recover from that disease, Keats ended up quarantined on a ship during an outbreak of typhus.

3. “Lynne Tillman on the Small Act of Leaving the House,” Lit Hub

A perfect lockdown essay from novelist Lynne Tillman. “Everyone is an enemy in a virtual war.”

4. “from Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From by Sawako Nakayasu,” Bomb Magazine

This prose poem series by Sawako Nakayasu appears in her forthcoming monograph from Wave Books, which I just noticed in the fine print is not coming out till 2021. But that’s okay, time is stretching in strange directions now; I’m more likely to go to a bookstore in 2021 than I am in 2020, anyway. Christ. So, yeah, the poems were published in Bomb a few weeks ago, but I just read them and it feels like they are uncannily reflective of my quarantine mood: “Each girl is a vehicle, house, or anti-occupant… When the sunlight is not hitting the road, it is possible to visit or re-imagine what used to be the girl, the ruse, or the fullness of enclosure…”


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5. “Riku Onda and the Shin Honkaku Mystery” by Tara Cheesman, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Tara Cheesman explains how Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders is a riff on a classic Japanese genre.

6. “Eduard Limonov, 1943–2020” by Maciej Zurowski, Jacobin

A thorough history of the political evolution of the late memoirist, novelist, poet, and provocateur Eduard Limonov, which you will find particularly helpful if, like me, you were never really able to figure out if Limonov was a rightwing guy or a leftwing guy.

7. “W. H. Auden Was a Messy Roommate” by Seamus Perry, The Paris Review

“‘He is the dirtiest man I have ever liked,’ said Stravinsky of Auden… ” An excerpt from Lives of Houses, an anthology edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee.

8. “In a Time of Crisis, Her Voice Was the One That Galvanized Alaska” by Timothy Egan, The New York Times

Timothy Egan reviews Jon Mooallem’s book about the Great Alaska Earthquake — the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America — and about the life of the radio journalist who helped maintain calm and guide the public. This is such a strange thing to read about right now, because people advising us to be calm about the pandemic are to blame for how bad the pandemic is — so it’s hard to remember that there are of course situations where calm is the best response. Most situations! But for future reference, guys, we should always overreact to pandemics!

Stay well,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
@danasnitzky
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