The King of Mulberry Street (Napoli)

We used to have a landlady who prided herself (wrongly, more often than not) on coming up with pithy one sentence reviews of plays. She was desperate to be quoted. I am going to take that same chance here.

In her efforts to make this book accurate, Napoli forgot one thing; she forgot to make it good. She clearly did her research – some on her own family, more, she says in a postscript, from histories, contemporary magazines and contemporary newspapers. She clearly learned a lot about sandwiches. How do I know? Because she shares a great deal with us. Don’t get me wrong. I like sandwiches. But this section absolutely torpedoed the already glacial pace of this novel.

There is also no nuance when it comes to her characters. They can be seen a mile away. The gruff storekeeper with the heart of gold. The tough kid who has a secret. The changes in the protagonist are not at all credible. Even the ending, despite one mild and welcome surprise (which I won’t spoil) is utterly predictable.

I’ve never taken so long to get through 240+ pages of young adult fiction. What a chore.

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Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (Delisle)

This was a challenging book. It’s hard for me, with my own particular bias, to say whether it’s balanced. It’s certainly ambitious and detailed. There are many moments for consideration, more because of the context of living in a such a place as a resident (and not a tourist) than because of the art. I’m not an experienced reader of graphic novels, so perhaps some of Delisle’s choices eluded me.

I like that he is an adventurous narrator and don’t mind that he portrays himself as a clod. But winging his presentations and consistently including images that he had to know were likely objectionable to the given audience? Well, that just seems unnecessarily provocative. And his remarks about being a housewife? (His wife, who works for Doctors with Borders, has been posted there for a year.) Again, here he crosses the line between cloddish and sexist.

So, it’s an engaging and challenging read. I’d be interested to read it again and to discuss it with others. Would I use it in a classroom? Very hard to say. I doubt it.

http://www.guydelisle.com/english/index_en.html

Land of Marvels (Unsworth)

Sometimes, I feel like the sole ambassador for Barry Unsworth. I think he’s a remarkable author of what some call historical fiction. (I just call it fiction.) This is a layered novel centered on layered activity – archaeology – and as the dig proceeds, treasures, characters, and conflicts are literally and figuratively unearthed. If at times Unsworth spends too much time on ancient history or archaeology, it didn’t bother me too much. I mostly blurred through those section.

Unsworth is masterful with point of view here, shifting at times from one character to the other in a remarkably controlled and meaningful manner – at times in the same paragraph.

The tension builds quietly and definitely and leads to an ending that can only be described as tragic. And layered.

Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Bales)

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford points out that we have passively accepted a disposable society. Planned obsolescence has become the default. We don’t mind because most of us don’t know how to fix things or do much with our hands. Besides, things are made so cheaply (and elsewhere) these days, that it has become easier and cheaper to replace them.

Kevin Bales applies much of that thinking to some of the makers of those things. He said in his new preface that he regrets calling what is going on today the “new” slavery, and I can see his point. It is not so much that what he reports on is new; it is more that it has evolved. He uses case studies in Thailand, Brazil and elsewhere (notably, not the United States, though there are some brief references to its existence here) to make his point. His research is methodical (as is, unfortunately, his writing) and persuasive. If he reaches for the overly dramatic phrase too often, it is an honest bit of overreaching. He wants us to feel and be as passionate about the abolition of slavery as he is. He is the unpaid director of Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net) and his royalties from this surprisingly expensive book ($33 for a paperback!) go to various anti-slavery projects.

My first struggle with this book was a structural / philosophical one. Much in the manner of academics – and appropriately so, I think – Bales has articulated a pattern or system that has prompted the evolution of slavery. Like the things Crawford writes about, people have become disposable. Slaves are easily replaced. The global economy, whose praises we so often sing, has accelerated this process. Profit drives everything, including the police. Where, Bales implies (he could do more here), has all of the moral leadership gone?

Given this attention to the steps in the process (which show up in all of the case studies to varying degrees), I wondered why he chose to organize his chapters around places (rather than these steps). He wants us to recognize the steps in order to interrupt them, but having chapters on places makes it seem like slavery is a problem for other people in other places.

In order to eradicate slavery, he wants us to focus just on slavery. I understand the need to focus and I accept the argument (and not just because it is the day it is) that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I also accept his argument that we should not dilute the power of a word like ‘slavery’ as slave holders are trying to do (“bonded labor,” “attached labor,” etc.). Consider how we reference the Holocaust.

That said, I think Bales overlooks the notion of what I understand as intersectionality. He notes that there are no straight lines anymore, that there is often a layer of managers between the one who own and the ones who manage slaves. He advocates for the equivalent of the eco-detective when it comes to rooting out slavery.

How we can develop the narrow focus he seeks until we’ve examined its underpinnings both in other places and at home? As Alice Goffman’s troubled and troubling book On the Run makes quite clear, we have our own form of “debt bondage” here in the United States. How can we develop moral leadership unless we take care of our own structural problems first? Reading, Frederick Douglass learned early on, makes people unfit to be slaves, but now students are choosing not to read (while Malala gets shot for going to school). Bales points to example after example of how illiteracy and innumeracy are a step toward enslavement. Shouldn’t we be more concerned that we seem to have reached the more sophisticated form of slavery here – where students are choosing to enslave themselves? We also need to take seriously the question of bail, for example. How is it that we continue to allow people to languish in jail because they are poor? If we don’t work on ourselves first, wouldn’t our efforts to free prostitutes in Thailand (though urgently needed) come from a place of moral superiority or smugness? The same is true for the question of transition, and I like Bales’ attention to it. It is not enough, as we ought to know by now, to simply free slaves. They need their 40 acres and a mule and more. But how can we do this without acknowledging Ta-Nehisi Coates’ call for reparations?

This leads me to another issue that I think Bales evades, save for one early example. If another culture deems it appropriate to treat a group one way, are we to judge otherwise? I think so. I think there are such things as universal human rights. But who says my version is the correct one?

This is a very powerful book. At times, it’s overwhelming. I recognize my power as a consumer and try to choose wisely, but such decisions are not as straightforward as Bales suggests. What would happen if I did as Bales suggests with his book? Who made the paper? Who made the building where it was printed?

He is right that I should not let this book just sit on my shelf. I will pass it on.

The Fortieth Day (Ali)

Sometimes, it can be illuminating to read an author’s work in order, not because the work requires it (as in a series of books), but because it allows you to see the evolution of an author’s voice. I love Ali’s Sky Ward. I found the poems here (published 5 years earlier) more challenging to approach. That said, I believe I can see the seeds of what will become the vivid and layered work in Sky Ward.

From the title forward, there is much to consider here. Much of it, and I mean this literally and figuratively for spacing matters here, seems to be between the lines. With some poking and prodding, I found I could tease out fragments of meaning for myself, but this probably speaks more to my abilities as a reader of poetry than Ali’s work. I do enjoy his questions, his attention to what is I believe called the quotidian as he contemplates things on a grander scale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epitaph (Russell)

The opportunity to hear from Ms. Russell as part of the outstanding Brews & Prose series (https://www.facebook.com/events/597853560352936/) and the recommendation of a good friend prompted me to read and be mesmerized by DocEpitaph is just as remarkable. Russell’s ability to transform what is clearly a huge amount of research into a remarkable, hypnotic and balanced novel.

I’ve often argued against the notion of genres in writing. Everything is an attempt at persuasion. Whether it’s a legal document or an historical novel, the goal is to convince readers of your understanding of the narrative. That bit of soapboxing serves only to say that I found Russell’s account completely whole and convincing. To open the book was to fall back 130 or so years to place where I’ve never been. I didn’t find a false note or extra moment in all of its almost 600 pages.

Please know that I have no great love for Westerns or the now notorious characters who are featured in this novel and many films – Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, etc..  Those two, like an impressive number of others (both male and female) are so richly rendered. That said, I just love a good story well-told. And this, like Doc, is one.

Dreamers of the Day (http://marydoriarussell.net/novels/dreamers-of-the-day/) is next, I think.

James Baldwin (Leeming)

I’ve heard and read that contemporary writers make the complaint that so much is demanded of them. One even bemoaned that he was always asked to write for free and cited the necessity to tweet and to write a book review for the New York Times as examples. But the days of writers being larger than life characters seems to be gone. And the days of writers being both writers and citizens seems to be on the wane. Salman Rushdie was forced into the role, and PEN persists, but pause for a moment – when was the last time a writer (of fiction) was central to a national conversation (Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps, but even he made the point that ‘they’ generally only allow for one at a time), let alone in an international one?

Based on this biography, written by someone who was part of Baldwin’s entourage, someone Baldwin called, “My Boswell,” paints a picture of Baldwin who was personally and professionally everywhere in part because he could find a home nowhere – not in the church, not in New York, not in France, not in a particular genre of writing (I favor the essays) and certainly not in any relationship apart, perhaps, from the one with his brother, David. He felt called as a witness, and so he would travel to where there were things to be seen. The Civil Rights Movement – a name he eventually rejected – kept calling him home and forcing him to the South, a place where he’d return for one of his final pieces, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, about the murders of children in Atlanta.

Leeming narrates Baldwin’s life with engaging fluidity. At times too much the amateur psychologist, Leeming absolutely and painfully bogs down when he provides a few pages of summary / autobiographical analysis of many of Baldwin’s publications. Though short (thankfully), these sections are incredibly hard to read as Leeming rapidly summarizes the novel or play or essay collection interweaving, with an irritating sense of certainty, the parallels in Baldwin’s life and mind. Granted, Baldwin was apparently not shy about discussing these things, but these pseudo-academic digressions seem to serve little purpose. I started to grimace when I knew yet another one was coming. Okay, enough. They were frustrating.

How much autobiography is in Baldwin’s work? Leeming certainly makes the case for a few common threads (father-son, the boxes we are all put in and put ourselves in, etc.) and even does a decent job of acknowledging how Baldwin’s thinking changed and became more refined.

I was sorry to read of how he struggled so much – for personal contentment, for money, for a successful relationship, for more theatre and film work. Did the struggle make the man, the writer? Perhaps there is something to the cliche of the necessity of suffering for art.

Mostly, though, I want to return to Baldwin’s work, particularly his fiction, with new eyes and if not a better understanding than at least a deeper one. He put his life onto his pages and while some results have seemed messy or elusive to me, others (“Sonny’s Blues” might be the best short story I’ve ever read) have, like his essays, changed me. I need to give him more attention.