Editors’ Picks: Essential June Readings

It’s true, Covid-19 affected every facet of our existence, but we’re also all shaken up by the depth of systemic abuse in the United States. The editors at Columbia Journal share some of essential readings that are getting us through this difficult time.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

“Fiction has been really hard for me lately. In a time when leaping into escapism has never felt more ideal, I’ve found myself gravitating more towards history and nonfiction. I had read Baldwin before, but I wanted to dedicate more time to this collection and read the essays in sequence, which has since illuminated my days.

“Baldwin is brilliant, and his insights often cut straight to the soul in a subtle, enveloping way. He elaborates on his experience of being Black in America in the early 20th century and the flawed narratives in the media and history, all the while meditating on how these issues shift and shape the universal experience of being human. Baldwin challenges the reader to critically look inward at themselves and then outward at the world as he dissects the nature and effects of racial tension. First published in 1955, this book holds timeless insight and an important read for anyone with a pulse.” –Maddie Garfinkle, Columns Editor

Memorable Quote: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

The Undying by Anne Boyer and We Charge Genocide Again! by Tongo Eisen-Martin

“I’m reading The Undying by Anne Boyer, an expansive memoir about cancer under capitalism, that recently won a Pulitzer. Boyer dives into dream-based healing practices of Ancient Greece and Rome and the written accounts of women like Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag, and Kathy Acker about their own illnesses. I am also reading the curriculum We Charge Genocide Again! A Curriculum for Operation Ghetto Storm created by the poet Tongo Eisen-Martin about the extrajudicial killings of black people.”–Sylvia Gindick, Print Poetry Editor.

Memorable Quote: “The history of illness is not the history of medicine—it is the history of the world—and the history of having a body could well be the history of what is done to most of us in the interest of the few.” Anne Boyer, The Undying.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, ed. by Joe Fessler

“I’ve found it incredibly hard to focus over the past couple of weeks, and reading has almost become a Herculean task. Writing is out of question, and that MFA degree feels like it could slip through my fingers any day now. But theatrics aside, I’ve given myself permission to indulge in self-help books.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process is a self-help book on creativity, something I always thought sounded like an oxymoron. In this book, forty-six authors come together to answer a question: What inspires you? The featured authors include Junot Díaz, Aimee Bender, Ben Marcus, Neil Gaiman, Leslie Jamison, among many others. Since reading is hard and writing is harder, I’ve found the perfect grey area—reading about writing. One of my favorites paragraphs in the book was penned down by Elizabeth Gilbert, who talks about being inspired Jack Gilbert (nope, they’re unrelated).” –Abhigna Mooraka, Columns Editor.

Memorable Quote: “When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye. Gilbert takes this middle way and I think it’s a far better way: He says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy.”

Cherry by Nico Walker

“Reading this novel feels like wandering into a depraved party that devolves into personal disaster. The story illustrates how one lost dude joins the army, goes to Iraq, cultivates a drug habit, then nourishes his heroin addiction stateside by casually robbing banks. Walker’s enduring sense of humor renders the book’s otherwise pitiful symptoms of ruining one’s life curiously enjoyable. In this work, the notion of insatiability acts as both a theme for the book’s nuanced exhibit of addiction as well as the reader’s experience consuming it. I can’t get enough.”–Al Jacobs, Print Editor. 

Memorable Quote: “Most of us could do push-ups. And were the outcomes of all the wars decided by push-ups and idle talk, America might never lose.”

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

“I read this novel in one day, which isn’t very hard to do because a good majority takes the form of a television screenplay: lightning-fast, dicey, letting single words and directions do the work of sentences. It follows Willis Wu, a background actor in a police procedural set within Chinatown, competing with other Asian Americans for valuable screen time in order to advance his standing and be promoted, eventually, to the supporting role of Kung Fu Guy, the highest honor for Asian males in Hollywood. 

“I try to read a lot of Asian American lit, and the symbolism at work in Interior Chinatown is familiar, but Yu, one of the team responsible for the first season of Westworld, brings it all into fresh perspective with touches of surreality and metafiction. I’m a bit sick of the complications often built into novels about race that try to convince you of their authenticity. I appreciate the high level of suspension that this narrative requires. It’s a simple story that contains more heft than I’ve seen from similar novels.”–Jinwoo Chong, Print Fiction Editor

Memorable Quote: “Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.”

Photo credit: Sofia Iivarinen / Pixabay

About the author

Maddie Garfinkle is a writer and artist from Miami, Florida. She is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Columbia University where she serves as Columns Editor for Columbia Journal. Instagram: @maddiegarfinkle

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