Curated by ISABEL MEYERS
We’re celebrating a successful spring issue launch by showcasing book recommendations from our Issue 21 contributors. Their picks, which range from a poetry collection exploring Latino identity to a memoir documenting incarceration in the 1850s, are diverse in form yet collectively poignant and timely. Make sure to read the April installment of Friday Reads, featuring more picks from our Issue 21 contributors, and pick up a copy of the spring issue.
Recommendations: The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict by Austin Reed, Teeth Never Sleep by Ángel García, Farewell Ghosts by Nadia Terranova
Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict; recommended by Ravi Shankar (Issue 21 essay contributor)
Austin Reed is sui generis. His book, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, written in the 1850s but unpublished in his lifetime, reveals what life might have been like for a Black man who lived in a House of Refuge from a very young age before being incarcerated for much of his life at the Auburn State Prison in New York. After remaining in unknown private hands for over a century, Reed’s handwritten, hand-sewn manuscript was discovered nearly 150 years after it was written at an estate sale by an antiquarian bookseller. It has since been authenticated and edited by Yale University English professor Caleb Smith, and was published in its entirety by Penguin Random House in 2016.
The Haunted Convict, dated 1858, is the earliest known prison memoir by an African American writer. Image courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is a truly hybrid construction, a patchwork quilt of material that includes excerpts from poems, passages from the Bible, lists of tasks and punishments, dream sequences, epistles, and passages of fiction and exposé alongside what can be corroborated from prison records as factual. Throughout the work, there also runs a thread of magical realism; clearly, portions of Reed’s memoirs are exaggerated and invented, which becomes a necessary tool for him to gain ownership of his own traumatic experiences. We also get a sense from Reed’s work of how many contemporary mechanisms of incarceration, from the use of solitary confinement to forced labor, are historically based. His first-hand account reflects the changing demographic of prison populations, as many of his fellow prisoners are Irish.
Because Reed didn’t publish this book, the text is raw, unfinished, darkly lyrical and linguistically inventive, existing as both a lamentation and a pastiche. It is unlike other confessional crime narratives that were published soon afterward under the guise of having been written by Black authors, but which were often heavily redacted and revised by white editors. Reed’s book, though grammatically regularized and slightly edited by Smith, remains maddeningly, elusively brilliant in its incomplete state, its narrations witty and ironic and elliptical, even while arising from genuine suffering. The trouble with traumatic knowledge, according to literary theorist Geoffrey H. Hartman, is that it “cannot be made entirely conscious, in the sense of being fully retrieved or communicated without distortion.” Reed’s book foregrounds this distortion through the deployment of sheer verbal inventiveness, textual hybridity, and an unreliable narrator who nonetheless elicits our sympathy. His writing foreshadows postmodernism, deconstruction, and autofiction, making The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict more than simply an important historical artifact, but rather a vital part of the American canon of letters.
Ángel García’s Teeth Never Sleep; recommended by Jose Hernandez Diaz (Issue 21 poetry contributor)
Teeth Never Sleep by Ángel García is one of the best books I read last year. There is so much attention to line and form, and the sentiment hits the reader right in the gut and heart. In the poem “Bones,” the speaker laments a lack of relationship with a father who is always searching for them. The poem is written in a thin, matter-of-fact yet on-point, line. Every word is necessary; nothing is overstated. García has a talent for saying just enough and still saying it with abundant authority.
Another heavy-hitting poem in the collection is “Nombre.” In this poem, the poet acknowledges that to be Latino (male) in the USA is to be invisible yet hyper aware: you are your expectations to a certain degree. You are already guilty. You are a “murderer and rapist” to many, including the ex-President. “Nombre” or “Name” in English is a powerful ode to feeling nameless and ghostlike in a country that never wanted you in the first place.
Overall, the collection is a hybrid of sorts: verse poetry and prose poetry. García’s work stands out on both levels of verse and prose poetry. His prose poems tend to be on the realist side; however, he is not afraid to mix in some surreal moments. I highly recommend this book and can’t wait for the next one.
Nadia Terranova’s Farewell Ghosts, translated by Ann Goldstein; recommended by Kathryn Haemmerle (Issue 21 poetry contributor)
For some years now, I’ve been trying to read more literature in translation. Because I struggle to recommend just one book, I’ll say that this all began six years ago with fiction by Clarice Lispector and Guadalupe Nettel and a slim, then-recently translated collection of essays by Valeria Luiselli. After reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, I decided to explore other contemporary fiction of Italy. My stack of books currently includes Beyond Babylon by Igiaba Scego, A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, and Farewell Ghosts by Nadia Terranova.
In Farewell Ghosts, the first novel by Terranova to be translated into English, a woman in her thirties living in Rome returns to her childhood home in Messina, Sicily to help her mother repair and clean out the house to sell it. The return becomes a reckoning that forces Ida to confront the disappearance of her father when she was 13. Amid the late summer sirocco heat and winds, loss and absence sweep Terranova’s prose as Ida reexamines the past—the fractured relationship with her mother, a faded friendship with her childhood friend, her father’s depression and disappearance, the crumbling house that contains a painful past, and a landscape marked by Greek myth and ruins, all the city’s dead. The novel is slim at just over 200 pages, but it’s best to sit with and absorb the language, with its descriptions of the terrain and city as revelatory as Ida’s interior obsessions and memories. Farewell Ghosts reflects on the haunting of place, trauma, and their psychological hold across decades.