Electric Arches (Ewing)

It was her three re-telling poems that first made me sit up and take notice. In each, Ewing starts with a typed account of an experience with brutal racism, but then stops short. We then see her handwritten (and presumably much more positive) re-telling of how the encounter ended. These new endings (and all three poems are featured in a section of her book called, “True Stories”) contain a magical element, one that allows the persona to reclaim the narrative.

As a white male, I am not sure I was able to find my way into all aspects of all of these poems, but I found enough to get a firm grasp on their power. I can’t wait to share them with students.

Ewing’s site

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Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape (Schlabach)

Although I last lived there over 20 years ago, Chicago, and particularly the South Side where I went to college, has fascinated me since I first came to know it. This book (a published dissertation, really) promised to appeal to both my love for Chicago and my love for literature, with its promised focus on the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright.

In the end, the book / dissertation is okay for many reasons that despite their elaborate bindings, few people outside of the author’s family ever actually read dissertations. It’s repetitive, self-referential and features too much jargon. There’s no heart here, no passion. It’s an informative book, but not really a meaningful one. There’s some nice focused attention on both Brooks’ life and her work. The section on Policy (what I knew as Numbers) is well-constructed, but even the author seems to realize that she has to strain to connect this with the literary landscape.

So, it was good background reading and made me want to read more of Brooks’ work, so those are both positives.

I was surprised that Schlabach, a white author, made no mention of herself in relation to her subject. This oversight shadowed the whole book.

There There (Orange)

The Prologue is amazing – literally breathtaking (read it one gulp) – and the book just gets better from there. This debut novel deserves the hype. Orange, with a tip of the cap to Louise Erdrich, has constructed a novel about the urban Indian experience with incredible style (Tim O’Brien, maybe?) and structure. The plot introduces us to a range of characters who collide in ways that are realistic, tragic and earned. The only thing I wanted to do when this one was over was to read it again – and I will – to see how he put it all together. I can definitely see teaching this one day, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from Mr. Orange. With his sharp attention to detail and his nuanced negotiation of topics that few outsiders can appreciate, he has announced his presence with a book for the ages.

(Given the plot, it’s definitely a book that could be adapted for the big screen. Somehow I doubt it will be, though.)

The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels)

Based on my annotations, I found myself engaged and thought I understood some things for roughly the first 1/4 of the book. After that, I found this difficult to follow, in part because there are so many short-hand allusions to historical events with which I am unfamiliar. I think I understood the terms of the manifesto. So many of them have become adopted (misused?) by other thinkers.

There is a great deal of power to the ideas they present here, but the attempts at applying them (such as they’ve manifested themselves in historical examples I do understand – at least a little bit) made me want to read the sequel to this, if you will. How would Marx & Engels respond to those who have tried to execute (deliberate word choice) their ideas?

I’m glad I read this, or at least tried to. But as several people suggested (and the suggestion seems especially appropriate given the content), it’s probably best read as part of a discussion group. It was hard to grapple with it on my own.

The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists (Klein)

I appreciate the way Klein is responding to the “tremendous urgency of now” by writing these short books (pamphlets?) that speak to issues of the day. With the recent news of the absurd undercounting of the deaths from Hurricane Maria in the news, her work is even more urgent. In both cases, the shocks that Puerto Rico has faced (which pre-date Maria) have prompted each side to see the island (or maybe it’s right to say ‘colony’?) to see Puerto Rico as a clean slate. On one side are the “Puertopians,” the wealthy (including those with connections to present day Washington D.C.), who see the prospect of setting up a utopia that serves them and their money well. Their weapons lie in the deliberately inept response to Maria and events that preceded it. On the other side are those who are seeking a “just recovery,” one informed both by experiences with hurricanes and climate change and the economic consequences of being, well, there’s not a better word for it, a colony. I am heartened by the signs of hope that Klein describes, but the relentless pressure, manipulation and money of the other side has me feeling less than optimistic.

The royalties from sales of the book go hereBuy one.

Hunger: A Memoir of [My] Body (Gay)

At times, because of the content and a few experiences I’ve had related to it, I found this to be an incredibly difficult book to read. Then Gay reminds me that it was even more difficult for her (303):

Writing this book is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. To lay myself so vulnerable has not been an easy thing.

And in direct prose and short chapters, she does make herself incredibly vulnerable, so vulnerable that at times I equated closing the book with looking away. Then I realized that looking away made me part of the crowd that Gay describes, the crowd that cannot look at her because of her size. Part of the reason this book was so brutal for me is because I found it so hard to position myself in relation to the experiences Gay recounts. There was advice floating around in my head. There was recognition of my own behavior, especially in relation to those personal experiences I allude to above. I wanted to be the wise one, the one who was pushing Gay to assert herself, to make it easy for her to take up the space she (and every human being) deserves (though gender definitely matters here – what do we teach girls about the kinds of space they should take up both with their bodies and their voices?).

I support where Gay lands – that people should work to be comfortable in their bodies. I’m certain that’s a lesson people of every size, shaper, gender and race need to know and support.

I was not knocked out by the writing in Bad Feminist. Gay definitely has some interesting ideas in that book, but her expression of them is uneven, sometimes half-formed. Here, though, there is more obvious attention to how she tells her stories. Her voice is clear and can not and should not be ignored.

This should make for a compelling conversation –

Anisfield-Wolf Common Ground conversation on HUNGER

All For Nothing (Kempowski)

It’s late in World War II, and signs of defeat (in the form of Russian troops) are on the East Prussian horizon. The once wealthy von Globigs, with the patriarch off in Italy, are wondering when they should flee. The neighborhood is changing, starting with the orderly housing complex across the road and the incursion of foreigners into the area and even into their house. Prior to fleeing, the story is kind of a reverse journey narrative; rather than having encounters along their own path, they are a stop for others who have already decided to flee. Despite these apparent changes, the family tries to retain its hold on life as it once was in their manor house, filled as it is with various knick-knacks and mundane routines.

The turning point comes when the notoriously oblivious and superficial matriarch makes a kind of passive decision for reasons she can’t really articulate. (I’m avoiding a spoiler here.) This is the catalyst that pushes the family out on the road and Kempowski’s casual tone (as translated by Anthea Bell) continues to contrast strongly with the horrors and bureaucracy of a country realizing that it has come undone.

I thought the book was okay, kind of a one-trick pony. Kempowski gently mocks everyone, even the von Globig’s young son, to make the point the title introduces. He probably could have accomplished it in fewer pages.