I’m glad Berlin has been (re)discovered, but I wonder about the decision to put quite so many stories in one collection. Why not just re-print the collections she published in her lifetime?

The stories are off-beat, honest, quirky. I most appreciated the ones where we see the same story from two points of view, not in any clever modernist way, but the story of the old couples watching the sisters on the beach and the story of those sisters – both in one story. A single story, however short, rarely contains just a single story.

Though I could have used a family tree, I also thought the collection picked up when it became apparent that so many of the stories were interconnected. The same characters at different ages, featuring here, having a bit part there. It was, at times, tempting to consider the stories Flannery O’Connor-esque, but I don’t think that does either writer justice.

Good stories. Honest. In interesting places with flawed and fantastic people. Real.

I’m not going to be able to say too much here because I read 2/3 of this a long while ago and then (honestly) misplaced it. I was hoping our son would forget about having asked me to read it, but he didn’t, so I tried to stall for longer by saying I had other things to read ahead of it, but he persisted and I had promised.

Look, I’m not in love with the fantasy genre and haven’t really read much that would allow me to offer an assessment of whether this is better or worse than other fantasy novels. The writing is uneven. Sometimes, it’s wonderfully specific; occasionally, there are some glaring generalities.

I like how Mull handles the genders and that this book has an honest ending, not just a cliffhanger to push me to the next book (#2 of 5, which our son insists I will finish).

Green’s book, subtitled West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, covers the years from 1890-1933. I’ve started to become more interested in labor history and have a family connection to West Virginia. Like many others, according to the explanation Green offers as his reason for writing the book, I was not aware of the violent intensity between the miners and their families and the owners / operators of the mines. Green says repeatedly that there is no completely accurate account of how many people died, but everyone – the miners (some of whom were WWI veterans), the private guards the operators hired, the National Guard that had to be summoned, and even the US Army – all had guns. The organizers, the likes of Mother Jones, John Lewis and Frank Keeney, were amazingly persistent and resilient people, especially in an era when transportation and communication were far more difficult than they are today.

But the willingness of the ordinary and here often unnamed families to participate in strikes absolutely astounded me, especially in the later years when the country was experiencing a depression. At times, I wondered whether the rugged spirit that was formed in West Virginians during this time was a kind of precursor to Hillbilly Elegy, and perhaps another explanation of the result of our recent presidential election.

I was also quite taken with how diverse and integrated the union was from its very inception. Even when social forces interceded and resulted in things like segregated housing, the union was always open to all.

Green never really hides his pro-Union bias, and it never overwhelms his narrative. Despite this bias, he is critical of certain union decisions and tactics, particularly when corruption infected the organization.

Green makes the case that this is a story that needed to be told, and he told it well.

Initially, many of these poems, most of them ekphrastic (see, for example, Enlightenment), felt fragile. Perfectly constructed, but not ones I could find my way into. There were no lines that stood out; everything depended on everything else.

Slowly, as I begin to get some sense of the rhythm of the pieces and recurring motifs started to appear (her father, being mixed race, etc.), I found them more accessible and those poems opened up the whole collection for me. For example, from “The Book of Castas,” on being of mixed race:

what do  you call // that space between / the dark geographies of sex? // Call it the taint – as in / T’aint one and t’aint the other – // illicit and yet naming still / what is between.

I’m not doing Trethewey’s spacing justice, but you can see how those lines would have to be unpacked carefully. The same is true for the whole collection.

Although you wouldn’t think that the history of banking would be exciting, much less the stuff of a musical, Baradaran presents a compelling narrative about how and why we got to the place where we are so far from the democratization of credit that our founders envisioned (and pretty much enacting the fears they anticipated). It boils down to mission drift or, better yet, mission abandonment. Initially, banks were conceived as a public service institution, assigned to serve everyone. At some point in the 70s, the mission shifted to profit, and Baradaran demonstrates how this hybrid – a private profit making institution supported by the government is just not sustainable.

Various alternatives have emerged – the credit union, in its original form, seems to have had some success. But it, too, had its mission corrupted. Baradaran sees some possibilities in postal banking, but her endorsement is far from passionate.

And the question of what comes next (there’s that musical again) is essential. J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame talks about how his family relied on payday loans. And The Atlantic  also wonders what would replace them.

What Will Come After Payday Lending?

a preview of the book on a podcast

What an amazingly intense, funny, and accurate book. For a time, I was reading this alongside a biography of Basquiat, and the overlap – in terms of descriptions of excess – was remarkable. Though the book checks in at just shy of 700 pages, there is not a page wasted as Wolfe creates characters whose lives revolve around one incident that happens one night in the Bronx. Despite his fondness for unsubtle names (Bacon, Lamb, etc.), Wolfe’s book could easily be one of the proverbial “ripped from the headlines” stories. No one and no moment is spared. This is a classic.

All I remember about the movie is the controversy around the selection of Tom Hanks. I’m curious about it, though I am not that interested in watching it. Wolfe’s world was more than enough. And that, I suppose, was part of the problem.

Look, I’m no art critic, but I’ve always been intrigued by Basquiat’s work. Can you separate the artist from the art? Would it be as intriguing to me if I didn’t know anything about the human being behind it? I think so. Those who have had discussions with fiction with me know that I tend to downplay the author’s biography when it comes to interpretation. So does it matter here? I think so. Hogan’s thesis seems to that of the divided Basquiat. Talented, but untrained. Attractive and repellent. Desperate for fame and aware that it destroys first his talent and then his life.

The book is, as the cover blurb says, “compulsively readable.” Hogan makes interesting choices with her supporting material. Instead of weaving it into the narrative, she’ll just stop and tell you the biography of a dealer or the evolution. You might think this would kill the momentum of the biography, but it doesn’t; it’s a chance to catch your breath.

We know how this turns out. Basquiat dies. He dies young, and he dies badly. Hogan never shies away from that fact; nor does she attempt to create any kind of artificial suspense or pathos. It’s a sad and predictable ending to his chaotic life which, in turn, leads to a tangled afterlife for his work and its profits.

I can’t resist one psychological observation (a natural consequence of reading a biography, I think). Basquiat’s father gets a lot of the blame here; Mom disappeared from the narrative for so long that I wondered if I’d overlooked the fact that she’d died or something. There are a few who make tentative efforts, but no emerges, no friend, no mentor, no family member, no artist, no business associate, no girlfriend who makes any serious and consistent effort to tell him that he’s screwing up his life. They are all too attracted to him and afraid of him.

Was he talented? Was he just both a victim and a beneficiary of the 80s art scene? Are we just drawn to him because he died young and left a good-looking corpse? I don’t know. I like to look at his art. It makes me think; it makes me feel. That’s enough, yeah?