The Meter Reader: Three Reviews by Anne Barngrover
Reviewed: Insomnia by Marina Benjamin (Catapult, 2018).
In prose as opulent and glittering as the book’s nocturnal cover (which I could not stop creepily gazing at and caressing!), Benjamin takes us on a sweeping journey of insomnia’s role throughout literature, philosophy, religion, psychology, and her own personal story. I read this lyrical memoir in a single evening, entranced by its velveteen, thorough lullaby. Based on my own particular biochemistry and who I am as a person, I have struggled with sleeplessness since literally the day of my birth. But what I most appreciated about Benjamin’s work was her repositioning of insomnia “not just a state of sleeplessness, a matter of negatives [but as] a state of longing.” Maybe, I began to think, my lifelong insomnia is not the main struggle but rather the byproduct of “an excess of longing and an excess of thinking.” Lacking of course means longing, which I had never really considered before in this context. Benjamin realigns our thinking of insomnia not as analogous with despair, but with desire. Her book spills over with it.
Reviewed: Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me by Jill Kolongowski (Ulysses Press, 2017).
I wish I had written this book! It caught my eye at the YesYes booth last year at AWP Tampa, and so I rushed over and struck up a conversation with the author, Jill, who’s YesYes’s Managing Editor. We chatted about our shared Harry Potter obsession and, obviously, our Hogwarts Houses (she’s a Hufflepuff, I’m a Ravenclaw). For a few weeks I saved the book as if it were a fancy chocolate bar. When I eventually brought it to read on a flight, I found myself engrossed by Kolongowski’s brilliant close-reading and emotional prose. What’s better than when someone handles a thing you love with the upmost precision, insight, and care? Much like how I used to read the actual Harry Potter books both as fast and slow as possible, I spent the remainder of my trip treading that fine line between savoring and devouring. Life Lessons Harry Potter Taught Me is one of those wonderful finds that expresses precisely what I’ve been feeling for a long time but never had the exact words to say. For me as a writer, this work also represents a life-changing approach to blending personal memoir with literary criticism and learned wisdom. Not only did it make me look at Harry Potter differently, but also it made me look at writing differently. I gifted this book to six people last year and will probably buy another copy for myself just so I can annotate it for the second time. Yes, the nerdiness runs deep—but I know that a connection this strong in life is rare, and it’s worth it.
Reviewed: Basements and Other Museums by Vedran Husić (Black Lawrence Press, 2018).
These stories are sweet, tangy Jaffa cakes just as they are exploding shards of glass. A semifinalist for the 2019 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut short story collection, Basements and Other Museums bridges and collapses times of war and times not of peace but of remembered war, spoken and not-spoken-of war. In the breathtaking opening story “A Brief History of Southern Slavs”—which spans centuries in less than a page—Husić renders a people who “had only one God, the winter God,” who “died standing up,” who “rebelled against kings” and “whispered in the presence of books, became prisoners of ideas,” a people whose children, generations later, would play dangerous games of snipers in alleyways, immigrate to the American Midwest, work for the census, write poems. It is tempting to quote so many of this book’s iridescent sentences just to revel in their piercing and, sometimes strange, beauty, like butterflies with two different colored wings. My favorite of the stories are the ones featuring Bosnian immigrant teenagers, specifically “Admir and Benjamin.” The narrator reflects on the nature of this friendship, how “we never talked about the war is only significant in retrospect. […] And it was only by accident—overhearing my parents’ conversation in their bedroom—that I learned about the Serb who held a knife to Admir’s throat, only a bribe restraining him from murdering my best friend.” The background of their shared war-torn youth—and the particular intimacy between two quiet weirdos—reaches a haunting crossroads as the boys grow up and apart. Our pasts are never as far from us as we’d think, but who’s to say what will ultimately determine the shape of our futures? Basements and Other Museums is an impressive and important debut.
Anne Barngrover is the author of Brazen Creature (University of Akron Press, 2018) and is an assistant professor of English at Saint Leo University, where she is on faculty in the Low-Residency MA in Creative Writing. She lives in Tampa, FL.