On My Bookshelf


Like everyone, I am looking forward to reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. I hear it is not depressing. Still, I have been warming up for it with Donald Hall's affecting poems, Without, about his wife, Jane Kenyon, and her death; also Jane Kenyon's own dry-eyed, clear-eyed Collected Poems, which are of course about life, mostly, and full of it. Further preparation has taken the form of Jack Gilbert's Great Fires -- I do so love that poem about his wife reincarnated as a dalmation -- and Czeslaw Milosz's great last book, Second Space, which ends with a long poem about Orpheus and Eurydice -- yet another lost spouse-- but which is dominated, finally, by other losses.


As the title poem asks,

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell? . . .
Let us implore that it be returned to us,
That second space.


Let us, indeed. And if only we could have Milosz back while we are at it! It's hard to comprehend we will have no more of his upliftingly piercing work.


I normally do not read so much poetry, but my fall was, for a variety of reasons, too fragmented for fiction. Happily, the last novel I read was pleasure enough to last me a while-- Qiu Xiaolong's When Red is Black. This is the latest of his detective novels set in contemporary China -- as disarming a book as can be imagined, featuring a classical-poetry-quoting inspector. And before life craziness set in, I did also manage the galley for Allegra Goodman's completely wonderful upcoming novel, Intuition, which is ostensibly about a crisis in a science lab, but really about what it's like to search for truth in our crazy day and age. I don't think I've ever seen ambition -- real ambition -- portrayed so movingly since Middlemarch; I found myself reading it the way I once read all the time-- for wisdom. It will be out this spring.


For the most part, though, I've had to get my fiction fix by reading about fiction, via Andrew Delbanco's first-rate biography of Melville. This is much shorter than it appears -- all those footnotes -- and a surprisingly great read. I especially loved the end, about the writing of Billy Budd. Delbanco uses a very light touch on the pathos--perfect.


Less exquisitely written, but nonetheless illuminating has been George C. Williams' Plan and Purpose in Nature: The Limits of Darwinian Evolution,, which is not about intelligent design, but unintelligent design. If ever you've wondered how we humans can be so highly evolved and yet so poorly designed, this is your book. I read it and felt a great dawning: mystery solved! No wonder we are what we are--we're just lucky we're not worse.


--Gish Jen
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