Exiled in America: Life on the Margins of a Residential Motel (Dum)

This is a well-written, if slightly dissertation-y ethnography that centers on the Boardwalk Motel and its residents during the time when Dum lived there. His eye for description and analysis combine to do the first step of what he says is necessary (and I agree) – to humanize those who live on the margins. His introduction to the various dynamic people he encounters is effectively interwoven with the intersection of forces that brought them to the Motel and make it hard for them to leave. Though I am normally suspicious of jargon, Dum’s language (the notion of a “social refugee”) is so spot-on, I found myself very much welcoming the concepts into my vocabulary. I also appreciated the time he took to explain his methods and to acknowledge its possible flaws. He managed to balance all of these goals and produce an urgent and necessary book, one that goes beyond the symptoms to the causes and is unafraid to scrutinize one of America’s sacred ideas, namely capitalism.

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Born a Crime (Noah)

I can’t imagine anyone but Noah reading his memoir, especially since I am not so sure how many people know the number of languages he does. He gives a terrific reading. If there is just a touch too much casual swearing, I blame the author, not the reader. I don’t really watch talk shows on any kind of regular basis, but I began to see enough clips of Noah’s show to intrigue me, and I’m glad because this is a very powerful memoir. If anything, I wanted it to be longer. The personal and political details of his coming-of-age in South Africa are eye-opening. And how Noah, with his humor and precise insight, emerged from the other end of all of this is just astonishing. The memoir is filled with incredible moments (his friend ‘Hitler’ dancing for a Jewish audience along with the explanation of why his friend was named Hitler is but one example of how Noah’s personal story, humor, and political awareness all combine to tell an incredible story). Noah’s willingness to put all of his flaws out there, including a brutal pause near the end of the book, contributes to the book’s power. This one is really something special.

3 Tragedies (Lorca)

I was first introduced to Federico Garcia Lorca by a magnificent play about him called, Lorca in a Green Dress by Nilo Cruz. From there, I had to investigate. I found and marveled at his poetry. It’s hard to find productions of his plays, so this seemed like a worthwhile book to explore. There’s such passion in these plays, that prose cannot always contain them. I’ve heard them described as very difficult to produce and now I see why. Still, I’d love to see a company make an effort, maybe even do something in repertory, for there is a thematic overlap here. These characters are in love and not always with the right person. They feel restrained in part because they seem to have no privacy. There is a strong element of class here. In other words, these are characters who can’t afford privacy.

And you have to read the loving and lovely introduction to this collection by the author’s brother, Francisco. I am not usually one for introductions, but this one is well worth your time.

Have you ever seen a production of one of his plays? What did you think?

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (Pearlman)

Though Pearlman’s name is on the book, she rightly turns over everything but the Introduction to the voices from Syria. She explains her process for the interviews and her organizational scheme. The words left behind and the order they are in form a stunning and specific narrative of the attempted rebellion against Assad’s Syria.

The story that this structure reveals is one of inspiration, intentions, inexperience, and finally, frustration. And the thing is, it all began to feel a version of normal. Abu Firas, a fighter says –

In the beginning, one or two people would get killed. Then twenty. Then fifty. Then it became normal. If we lost fifty people, we thought, “Thank God, it’s only fifty!”

I think poetry endures because when people are asked to tell their specific stories, they find language that somehow surpasses ordinary speech. Indeed, the title itself comes from one interview. I underlined so many tragic small moments (and a few positive ones). Together, they tell a story that we need to hear. These are not refugees; these are human beings. And for their sake, and for the sake of those to whom Pearlman dedicated this book (to those who did not live to complete their stories), attention must be paid.

The City of Brass (Chakraborty)

As I’ve written before, I’m not a great fan of the fantasy / sci-fi genre in part because I have enough trouble tracking the real world. This book was no exception. There are many intense and vivid scenes here, but my overall sense of the worlds these characters inhabit is extremely limited. For a while, there was a useful frame for all of the exposition – that of mentor to mentee. Once they separated, though, and the exposition continued, it became kind of tiresome and, for me, remained unclear.

I know there’s at least a second book coming out, and the set-up for it is clear, especially when the action picks up in the last 100 of the book’s 500+ pages. Maybe I just don’t get how publishing works. Did the publishers agree to publish the trilogy before the first book was published? Or do they see in it something I didn’t (probably)? Or does the success of a first book earn the author the opportunity to publish the second?

I am also unfamiliar with the worlds these characters inhabit in another way. With Cairo as the starting point, this book seems like an allegory of times, places and peoples who have lived there, and it’s just not a section of the world or a slice of history I know much about. There again, the fault is probably mine.

So, is this a good book? It wasn’t for me. Other than that, I don’t really feel that qualified to say.

If you’re going to read it, start here –

A good place to begin. . .

If Beale Street Could Talk (Baldwin)

With the exception of two pages, this is a remarkable book. For me, in the end (and in a rare burst of positivity from me), it is a story about love – between a young man and woman, between a family and that young man, between two men, between two fathers, between a husband and wife, between a couple and their children, between two sisters, and between friends.

Baldwin’s writing is spot-on and wise. His observations are careful and well-woven into an incredibly powerful story that is soon to become a movie.

There is one early page in which there is this deliberate confluence of sex and religion, not an unsurprising combination in Baldwin’s work. Then there’s this strange bit of physical action, a detail I think Baldwin missed, at the very end. I felt the impact of the ending, but I was a bit perplexed on a basic level. Who was where?

I can’t wait to see what Barry Jenkins does with it.

In a Free State (Naipaul)

I am aware of Naipual’s reputation and had read A Bend in the RiverA House for Mr. Biswas, and maybe one unmemorable piece of non-fiction. I just didn’t see the genius in any of it. Having recently completed Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul (The World Is What It Is), I started to wonder whether his reputation was too much tied up in his time, place and (choose your own adjective here – erratic?) personality. Then I got to the (is it a story? is it a novel? is it an interconnected story?), I got to “In a Free State,” and I got it. With an honest debt to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this piece, with its layered title, was absolutely riveting. All of the pieces I’ve learned to expect from Naipaul’s writing were present in a powerfully understated way. The part where Bobby and Linda stay with the Colonel is, by itself, a masterpiece. I suppose my biggest compliment for “In a Free State” is that I hope one day to use it in class.