February Bookshelf: We Were Eight Years in the Bardo

“The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I have read a bit less than usual this month than last, but I have a few good reasons. Firstly, I moved into a new flat in a new town this month, and spent several days reading nothing more dense than an Ikea assembly leaflet. Secondly, February only has twenty-eight days, and there really is nothing I can do about that. And finally, I got a great new job! I’m now working with an organisation where I will be tasked with choosing literature around which to build mental health workshops for people in marginalised communities. Now, to be fair, this job involves me reading pretty much all day (I told you it was a sweet gig), but I don’t feel like that’s the kind of reading I want to report in this regular series, and it might also be prudent to keep exactly what I’m reading to myself until the programmes are finalised, at least. But suffice it to say I am extremely happy, and I’ve read more short stories in the last month than I have… ever, pretty much. What a great, diverse, full of potential literary form the short story is!

I enjoyed everything I read this month. I’ve been using my local public library more and more recently as I was working freelance and my Waterstones budget shrunk, but I think I’ll keep using it even now that I’m a bit more flush. You could go into a bookshop with an idea of what you want and leave with exactly that, but I think there’s something to be said for going into a curated collection with a little more luck-of-the-draw and leaving with something that might surprise you. Also, libraries are amazing!


The first book I finished this month was Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. I had seen this book around for the last couple of years but hadn’t heard anything about it, so it was a true library lucky dip. This book has been released on Vintage Press’ Hogarth series, in which contemporary authors adapt and retell stories from Shakespeare, and in this novel Atwood takes on The Tempest, which is a personal favourite of mine. In Hag-Seed, a director finds voluntary work teaching theatre in prisons after a particularly painful and political firing from his company, and uses his role as an opportunity for revenge. I found the revenge plot a little far-fetched (although compared to the source material, I suppose it’s actually restrained) but I loved the dynamics between Felix and the the incarcerated men, and I loved Felix’s own little Miranda. It was also really fortuitous that I read this right before my job interview with Verbal, as the book is a neat discussion of how literature can be used in unexpected ways to draw out conversations about trauma, sadness, and isolation. You might well roll your eyes at the Shakespeare-redux genre, but if the rest of the Hogarth imprint is as good as Hag-Seed, I’m picking up Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl next.


The next book was a re-read for my students’ benefit, but I’m including it here because I loved Pamela so much more on revisiting it than I did as an undergraduate. I’ve written on these pages about my experiences teaching it, but from a purely literary point of view this book is a surprisingly adept discussion of empathy, albeit one drawn around activities for which we would not usually afford empathy today. I’m not sure my students felt exactly the same way however, but if my experiences are anything to go by, I’m sure they’ll spend the next ten years obsessing about the eighteenth century, only to reread it for a cohort of undergraduates and surprise themselves. The next substantial texts we have in class are Behn’s Oroonoko and Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative, which I am looking forward to getting into in detail with them. The OWC edition of Pamela is also a really nice one for this purpose; supportive annotations without death by footnote.


The next book was in some ways an unusual choice for me. I don’t read a whole lot of non-fiction, though I do love memoirs and read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me last year and loved it – the comparisons to James Baldwin are entirely appropriate. Having read his memoir and being a fan of his The Atlantic column on which much of this book is based, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy also came from the public library. Coates has been a reverberating presence on The Atlantic throughout the Obama administration and into this new, unspeakable era, and this book collects already published essays with retrospective addenda demonstrating the ways in which racism has been a holistic process throughout American history, not mere isolated incidents stopping in 2008 with the election of a Black president. Coates writes about Black families, reparations, the Civil War, incarceration, wealth, and the history of polemic in the US, impressively articulating optimism and skepticism without sacrificing either. I do not need to wax lyrical on why it is important for everybody to read Black perspectives on race. This book is a fine place to start forming discussions on what racism and anti-racism will be like for the next four – or god forbid, eight – years of power.


My final book was also presidential in its content. George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo is an experimental novel, narrating President Lincoln’s grief at the loss of his son Willie during the height of the Civil War, and Willie’s distress at being trapped between life and afterlife. Lincoln in the Bardo is told through reported speech by Willie Lincoln’s neighbours in the graveyard, interspersed with excerpted (real and fictional) contemporary and historical accounts of this part of the Lincoln years (there’s a tremendous section in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark that quotes fictional texts to a similar disorienting effect). Because of the person and the president that he was, Lincoln is one of the more human presidents in our collective imagination, which made him something of an easy target for this type of fictionalisation. He has also inspired considerably more works of literature and historical preservation than most of them, so modern readers perhaps have more of a sense of who he was as a person and as a president, a fact which Saunders knows and exploits. That said, I didn’t find anything about this to be cloying. How low we are laid by grief; it makes no difference how tall we usually stand. This is the first Saunders I’ve ever read (a Christmas gift!) and now that I’m picking up short stories on a weekly basis, I am sure I’ll make an effort to get to know him better.

So that was February and I loved every minute of it. I’m currently reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant so expect a review of that and who knows what else next month. In the meantime, send me your recommendations. What have you read this snowy February?


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