Ariel in Black (Smith)

I know only a few Plath poems and just a bit about her biography. I don’t really know Ariel at all. So I wasn’t sure how much I could ‘get’ from Smith’s re-imagining of it. Now that I’ve read Smith’s book, I am inspired to get myself a copy of Plath’s and then return to this again. And again.

Generally, I read poetry slowly, but there’s so much momentum in Smith’s writing that I regularly had to remind myself to pause and reflect. It was hard. There’s so much energy in these well-formed words.

Every once in a while, though, there was a moment that made me stop. Smith’s words demanded more attention than I was giving them. For example, from “Our Men” —

Is it any wonder / I am / following / behind / them / like / a /suicidal / moon /?

Even the question mark gets its own line. And the image of the suicidal moon – and Plath’s own end – will haunt me each time I look to the night sky.

From “Jezebel’s Requiem” –

“Your body /drags / history / after it / like a dark crime —

I have several favorites here. The title poem is tremendous, but I think “The Black Woman Activist OR The Sacrificial Yam” is the one I’d choose to anthologize. It is an excellent example of the momentum and sound of Smith’s words and ends so well:

I stand in a column / Of winged, unmiraculous women –

The juxtaposition of ‘winged’ with the invention of ‘unmiraculous’ is an outstanding way to end this poem dedicated to the founders of Black Lives Matter.

The poems in the final section, ones that are more explicitly (to me) about Plath and her relationships, feature an unrelenting, blunt and wistful tone. For example, Smith has Ted Hughes telling Plath: “I remained a good husband, Tending to the children, Trying to let you die.”

If you’re a Plath fan, you’ll love this. If you’re not, you’ll become one. If you haven’t discovered Smith’s work yet, you’ll be among her new fans.

Piranesi (Clarke)

Clarke does such an intriguing job of world-building here that I was hooked. There were references and allusions lurking everywhere, I was sure (Google ‘Piranesi’ for an example), and I was sure that I was only getting a small portion of them. Though I was confused, I was captivated by this world she’d made and was eager to discover how the inevitable disturbance to it would help unravel its purpose and the fate of its protagonist. And then. . .

I kept reading. And if Clarke could have come up with a lamer way of the world she’d created, I am not sure what it would have been. The second half of the book, complete with a ridiculous action sequence prompted by a deus ex machina that would make the creators of the original Batman cartoon wince (“Holy Flash Floods, Batman!), she devotes much of the rest of the book to long-winded expository passages that do not at all measure up to the intricacies of the world she created. Then again, maybe I gave her too much credit for the world-building.

I am reading this with a book group, and the possibilities we came up with after the presentation of this world were much more thoughtful and exciting than anything Clarke actually delivers. We were hoping that she was asking some profound questions, but when a gun suddenly appears, you get the sense Clarke is seeking the path of least resistance.

We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change (Horton & Freire, ed. by Bell, Gaventa, & Peters)

Ah, to have been a fly on the wall for this conversation. Luckily, Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters were there for me. Presumably, one or all of them took on the role of the ‘Third Party’ who moves the conversation along. I haven’t read much from or about Horton – something I plan to remedy – but I generally find that I need to accumulate a lot of Freire’s words before I can make sense of them. The pattern held true here. There is so much to admire about these two educators – and I will call them that even if others sometimes don’t – and their work with children and adults. Further reading will help me gain a better understanding of what went on at the Highlander Center, but its role in the Civil Rights movement is alluded to here and there are some mentions of its work with the Labor Movement.

There was one rather chilling exchange about literacy. I don’t think they meant it to be chilling, but its implications stunned me. They discussed how the literacy movement was most successful when people needed to be literate in order to vote. There was an urgency to it. It made me wonder about now. I work in a city in which 2/3 of the adults are considered functionally illiterate and I can wax both practical (jobs, advancement) and philosophical (freedom, imagination) in response to the question of why read, but there’s no urgency there. That all requires a kind of long-term thinking that not everyone has the luxury to afford. How do we make illiteracy a crisis again? Should we make it a crisis? Those are humbling questions.

Fathers and Sons (Turgenev, trans. by Freeborn)

I am sure there is much here to be said about Russia’s character and the Russian character, and I’m sure Bazarov’s nihilism was shocking at the time. I found it dull. There’s really no plot. Everything and everyone is so clearly standing in for something else that this turned in to one of the longer 200-page books I’ve ever encountered.

When My Brother Was an Aztec (Diaz)

I don’t know exactly why, but it seems to me that there’s a tremendous physicality that emanates from Diaz’s poems. When she’s writing about a lover, this can be very erotic. When she’s writing about her brother, this can be positively brutal. Normally, I like to read a few poems at a time, but with this collection, I often had to stop after just one; they left me winded. One sequence – “A Brother Named Gethsemane,” “Soiree Fantastique,” and “No More Cake Here” sent me reeling. If a student wrote something like “The Beauty of a Busted Fruit,” I’d be calling the guidance counselor.

Very good poetry and very hard to digest.

Homeland Elegies (Akhtar)

From what I understand, Akhtar is a good writer. I own American Dervish because of the reviews. He won the Pulitzer for Disgraced. If people are right about those works, I think Akhtar has taken all of his readers’ good will and cashed it in for this self-indulgent piece of crap.

It starts with the form. Is it true? Is it a novel? There’s even a short play in here. In the end, I do not care. I thought perhaps he was after some idea of portraying his life or his homeland (or his father’s homeland) as a kind of collage, but I heard him respond to an interview question about this and he said he thought writing something that navigated the lines of non-fiction and fiction mirrored the world we’re living in today. But this overlooks one thing. If I read fake news, accept it as real and act on it, there are real-world consequences. So I need to be responsible about reading things that claim to be news; something’s at stake. There’s nothing at stake here about whether his depiction of getting screwed by a car mechanic or his characterization of his sex life is real or fake. He does not do enough to make me care about the questions, either small or large, and the only way I’m going to act on this book is to write this and beg you not to read it.

There is almost nothing new here. No insight we haven’t heard before, no experience that hasn’t been relayed more effectively in some more compelling form. Akhtar attempts to use his father’s relationship with His Orangeness as a frame, but it’s largely an empty gesture to follow his father’s loss of faith in The Hair That Roared.

Attempts at dialogue turn into bad theatre. Each person has a viewpoint and that’s the extent of their characterization. Everything is designed, even as he relishes telling us about his wild & crazy years (why?) to make Akhtar into the smartest person in the room.

Predictable, smug, overwritten and just plain bad.

The Souls of Yellow Folks/Essays (Yang)

Although I wasn’t always that interested in Yang’s topics, his sharp, detailed and incisive writing could get me through, for examples, an overview analysis of 800 pages of sex diaries.

But I made a mistake. I judged a book not by its cover, but by its title. I thought a book that would borrow from DuBois would attempt to do for the Asian community what DuBois sought to do for the Black community. There 3.5 such essays (Part I and a kind of epilogue to another piece). I thought they were the most compelling ones.

Look, the man can write about whatever he wants to write about. With that title, though, he made a promise that he didn’t keep.

The Principles of Communism (Engels)

Our son has decided that he wants to start reading political theory and that I am his reading partner. It was interesting to read this. I don’t have a great grasp of some of the elements of the economic plan here, but I think I followed most of it. As labels continue to get thrown around with abandon these days, I appreciate going back to founding documents. I’m not converted, only a bit more informed. He’s got some Marx on tap for us next.

The Beginning of Spring (Fitzgerald)

Someone once asked me if I thought it possible for a writer to create a Southern novel that has nothing to do with the Civil War. I struggled to respond, and I am still not sure I’ve found one. The same kind of question came to me reading this novel. Can one write a novel about Russia without saying something about Russia as a whole? (You can replace ‘Russia’ with ‘the Soviet Union’ if you wish. I’m reading Turgenev for another book club. I’ve got the country on the brain. And yes, I know there’s a difference. I like the way my phrasing sounds better.)

Fitzgerald starts simply. A British wife takes her three children and leaves her husband. And then she returns the children. The husband tries to keep both his family and his business running. Simultaneously, given the bureaucracy, he must always be prepared for the prospect of selling his business and going back to England.

But the need to care for his children and his business brings new people into his life and, of course, we know what new people with different ideas do to people in novels set in, in this case, Moscow? Fitzgerald manages manages to balance the domestic and the political quite well. To her credit, there’s also a beautiful image with the new governess (that I’m not sure I completely understand), and the ending was both realistic and pleasantly unexpected. There’s humor and Fitzgerald keeps her characters more as humans than as symbols.

Overall, I liked it. Not a knock out, but thoughtful and memorable.

touch (Shibli, trans. by Haydar)

I am sure there is much I missed in Shibli’s allusive and elusive novella about the youngest of nine sisters in a Palestinian family. But I gleaned enough from this remarkable piece, translated so wonderfully by Paula Haydar, to say that I really enjoyed. The vignettes cover matters both personal and political and they are interwoven with such grace and understatement that though you might want to, you can never forget that this is a family surrounded by, whose lives are dictated by violence that they don’t initiate. This girl is ordinary – she fights with her siblings like we all have – until the outside world intrudes. And these intrusions are jarring both because of what happens and because the reactions to events are so practiced. It is their version of normal.

I wish I knew enough about Palestinian history to appreciate this more. Or perhaps there’s an annotated version out there somewhere. If for nothing else, read it for the prose. It’s like she wrote it with a butterfly’s wing.