Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (Smith)

I’ve been fascinated by this guy ever since I saw an exhibit about him at the Maryland Science Center. He seemed the perfect model for the adventurer who finds Victor Frankenstein on the ice and hears his story.

Still, there has to be more than that. His exploits on the ice, in terms of improvisation, are legendary. His preparation, his domestic life – not so much. Does he have the whiff of a tragic hero about him, similar to Alexander Hamilton?

Smith writes well by limiting the technical jargon and the digressions and writing a kind of adventure story himself. So much is easy to see in hindsight. I also appreciated how Smith was careful to identify where knowledge stopped and speculation began, especially as it relates to Shackleton’s finances, a mysterious letter, and his relationship with women.

Maybe Shackleton’s charisma just works on me the way Smith reports on so many people who maybe should have known better. I think Smith’s account is balanced and in the end that he applauds him, for all of his many flaws. I guess, in this age where we’re bloodthirsty to take down anyone and everyone for any flaw real or perceived, I want to applaud both Smith and Shackleton.


Hurma (Al-Muqri)

I think that to understand a satire, one must understand what is being satirized first. I am thinking here of things like Ulysses or Possession. While I can appreciate the artistry of each, especially the latter, I always read with the feeling that there were things I wasn’t getting. In the case of the Joyce, this feeling was reinforced by the Professor who gave us one week to read it (in the interests of expediency, I abandoned all of the support materials I’d accumulated when I’d read the book for a 10-week independent study), and I bailed out after maybe 25 pages. We were assigned to write a reflection and the Prof read mine and one other similar one out loud and said ours were the only 2 honest reflections he received. In the case of the Byatt, I read it in preparation for teaching a demonstration lesson, and I was stunned by the decision to high school students. When I asked my host teacher about her reason for selecting it, she mentioned all of the ways it mocked traditional graduate school approaches to literature. She came off sounding like some independent school English teachers do – like a wannabe college professor who couldn’t get a job or tenure so was taking it out on her high school students.

All that’s to say is that at times I found myself thinking of this novel as largely an inside joke. I wanted to read it simply because I’d never seen anything written by a Yemeni author before, but I have the feeling that I only reason I thought of it as satire was because I read the back cover. To be fair to myself, I did get a few moments and the ending is incredible in a number of ways, but in between, I suspect I was the one nodding while other readers were laughing the knowing laugh of insiders.

Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation” (Souther)

Though, at times, this reads too much like a dissertation, I really enjoyed this book. Souther traces the evolution of Cleveland and seeks to complicate the traditional narrative about cities by using Cleveland as an example. Cities, he argues, are neither coming back nor declining. They are, instead, doing both at the same time. An additional complication is the effort the city makes and its intended audience. Is the effort for outsiders? If outsiders, then is it tourists or businesses? If it’s ‘insiders,’ is that truly code for white and wealthy suburbanites? Is there a need to change perceptions or reality? And reality? Is there a need to change the city’s general disposition so that outsiders who visit will think more favorably of it? So that these same ‘insiders’ will be more favorably disposed toward proposed efforts to make changes? How much effort should be spent on downtown vs. neighborhoods? On Cleveland vs. Greater Cleveland?

There are a few lessons to be gleaned from the city’s history (according to Souther). Coalitions function more effectively than those with individual interests. When people and groups act according to “enlightened self-interest,” the results are better. The shift in the economy from production to consumption continues to be devastating to this day. And no one, it seems, asks the people who live in the city what they think would help improve the city, almost certainly because they do not pay enough taxes to make their insights worth due consideration. Their race also means their seats at the table are limited.

To Souther’s credit, he does not shy away from difficult topics like race and class. He names racism where he sees it, and he sees it as a recurring obstacle. He identifies a need that is familiar to me from other books about Cleveland – the need for inexpensive and well-maintained housing options in a wide variety of neighborhoods.

Since the book is a historical survey, it is not surprising that at times I wanted more depth in one area or another. And I have the familiar complaint that while many problems and their consequences are identified, little is offered by way of solutions or even success stories from other cities that we should see as models. But I’ve realized before this that this is not the responsibility of critics (who often throw in such chapters as afterthoughts).

Since I am not a native Clevelander, I was amused to find myself feeling protective of the city as I read. How dare this guy, also an outsider, think he has anything to say about Cleveland? Am I on my way to honorary ‘insider’ status? Unlike in some of our previous zip codes, we have felt welcomed here, even though we didn’t go to high school here. This, and to be honest, by this I mean ‘greater’ Cleveland, is, at long last, home.

The Big Book of Exit Strategies (May)

The first thing that struck me when I picked this book up at the excellent Guide to Kulchur bookstore was the apparent contradiction in the title. “The Big Book of” sounds like the beginning of a children’s title. “Exit Strategies,” as far as I know it, is a military term. And May teases this contradiction out throughout the collection, turning often to a motif of journeys and his hometown of Detroit as he provides the kind of poems that make you both laugh and think. I had too many favorites to list them all here, so let me see what’s available online.

Ah, here’s one.

There Are Birds Here (for Detroit)

And another. . .

A Brief History of Hostility

At least read its ending –

Aren’t graveyards and battlefields
our most efficient gardens?
Journeys begin there too if the flowers are taken

into account, and shouldn’t we always
take the flowers into account? Bring them to us.
We’ll come back to you. Peace will come to you

as a rosewood-colored road paver
in your grandmother’s town, as a trench
scraped into canvas, as a violin bow, a shovel,

an easel, a brushstroke that covers
burial mounds in grass. And love, you say,
is a constant blade, a trowel that plants

and uproots, and tomorrow
will be a tornado, you say. Then war,
a sick wind, will come to part the air,

straighten your suit,
and place fresh flowers
on all our muddy graves.

Heck, here’s his site –

Jamaal May’s site



City of God (Doctorow)

I heard an interview with Doctorow that ended with a question that is neither unreasonable nor unexpected. The interview asked Doctorow’s which movie adaptations of his books that he liked. (Full disclosure: Ragtime (the movie) was a turning point in my life.) Doctorow’s response: None.

I think part of the drive behind this book was to write something anti-cinematic, both in form and content. This is not only non-linear, it is downright random, both in form and content. There are threads of a story to pick up from time to time, but not everything is prose. There are lyrics, for example. And there are more than a few anti-Hollywood diatribes which (because of the interview, I admit) sound like they are Doctorow getting on his soapbox.

So maybe I’m not wise enough to get the sophistication of this book, with its apparently erratic structure and its philosophical musings, but this one just didn’t work for me. Give me Ragtime (the book and movie) anytime.

Woody Guthrie: A Life (Klein)

I started this to get myself in the mood to teach Steinbeck, but I think I got more than I bargained for. This biography is just too long, especially when Klein quotes (at length) some of Guthrie’s more sexual letters. I also think he does Guthrie a disservice by waiting until the end to retroactively label some of Guthrie’s behavior as symptoms of the disease that would kill him (and had killed his mother).

It was interesting to read how Guthrie pretty much invented himself and made his way around the country, learning both by observing and by reading. The relationship between his family and fire was just heartbreaking. As always, I loved when Klein described intersections Guthrie had with other names I knew (musical and otherwise, like Steinbeck) as well as historical events.

I don’t know if it’s the best Guthrie biography out there, but it’s certainly the only one I’m going to read. And yes, I now have Guthrie in the regular Spotify rotation in my car.

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (Baldwin)

It came as something of a relief to find that Baldwin’s poetry is not at the same level as his fiction, plays and essays. Many of these pieces seem like exercises, often featuring far too much concern with rhyme. There are moments of the kind of surgical observation I’ve come to expect from Baldwin in other genres. This, from “Staggerlee wonders” –

This flag has been planted on the moon:

it will be interesting to see

what steps the moon will take to be revenged

for this quite breathtaking presumption.

I could hear Baldwin’s voice in these lines.

I enjoyed the seemingly Langston Hughes influenced, “Song (for Skip)” and “Inventory / On Being 52” and bits and pieces of other poems, but generally, this collection didn’t grab me.