Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Gay)

Gay does a remarkable job of sneaking up on you. A poem is one thing, and then it is another, and then it is both – the two topics (one is often nature) blend easily because of an overall absence of punctuation. And that’s one of the problems here. Similar to Billy Collins, too many of these poems take on the same pitch. A few, like the title poem, stand out. Gay is fond of the quotidian hip fake. Poems that, from their title, seem to be about the ordinary, turn into more. The titles are deceptive – “sharing with the ants,” “becoming a horse.”

Interesting poems here, but not wholly engaging.

Here. Read this one. It’s plenty.

“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”

A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (Berger with photographs by Mohr)

It is hard to classify this book which is something I enjoy. In the end, which Berger reminds us can no way be taken as a conclusion, he does call it an essay. So, let’s call it a photoessay. Mohr’s photographs show their age. But there is an honesty to these photographs. None, if I recall correctly, are posed. They tend to show faces, eyes that often reflect the patient’s feelings about Dr. Sassall.

It’s sometimes hard to know what Berger is getting at here. Even as he notes the way Sassall flirts with paternalism, he calls the people that Sassall serves “backwards.” Though I wish the balance between the specific and the abstract had been better, Berger’s philisophical insights – based on observing Sassall work – are telling. He asks important questions. He notes things that make this doctor in this community unique and, well, fortunate. He stresses the importance of doing your work – whatever it is seriously and as well as you can. And he insists that such efforts can not be measured or extrapolated – a notion that appeals to me, as a teacher, very much.

A thoughtful and worthwhile book.

Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto (Ayers)

Even before I knew about his connections with the Weather Underground and Obama, Ayers was one of my heroes. He came to my school during my second year of teaching to talk with the teachers, and I was just riveted. Some years later, I heard him speak at a conference and was inspired as well. I had the opportunity to thank him for those two moments last night when he was in Cleveland for a talk to promote his new book.

Ayers said he was aiming for a pamphlet of old, that he was tired of being known for what he was against and wanted it to be known for what he was for. The manifesto is indeed radical. With everything that he’s seen and experienced, he dares to hope. “We can,” he reminds us, “always do something, and something is where we begin” (199). There’s much I could quote here and a great deal that I underlined in what will, I am sure, be the first of many times I read this book. It’s a quick read, so read it, and “get busy in projects of repair” (197).

Alexander Hamilton (Chernow)

Phew. I finished it with a week or so to spare before I see the show in Chicago. It’s a tremendous biography. Though I didn’t exactly feel the hip-hop songs jumping off the page the way Mr. Miranda did, he is right when he says that the founding of our country is a remarkable story. And, sad to say, with all of the justified concern about the decline of civility in the political process, well, we didn’t invent that either.

Though it checks in at over 700 pages, Chernow’s book is remarkably streamlined. I can only think of a few times when it bogged down, namely when Chernow was being meticulous about detailing Hamilton’s meticulousness.

It’s not original to say that historical figures become frozen in time. I knew some of Hamilton’s work with the Department of Treasury, but nothing of his role in the American Revolution and his connection with George Washington.

Writing about historical figures, especially ones as admired as Washington, has to be a challenge. There’s also the issue of historical context. That which we criticize now may have been viewed differently then, however wrongly we may think those views were. For the most part, Chernow handles these moments well. The few exceptions will make you grit your teeth and, I hope, continue reading. He gets more assertive as the book progresses.

Biographers have to be a kind of psychologist – explaining choices and behaviors with reference to their subject’s past. And Hamilton’s upbringing provides plenty of fuel for the fire, but such amateur psychoanalysis irks me. It’s outside of Chernow’s field. Why not just lay the cards out and let us draw our own conclusions?

I also take issue with Chernow’s treatment of Jefferson. Just as Rick Atkinson seemed intent on making Winston Churchill a buffoon in his WW2 trilogy, Chernow makes Jefferson the villain of this piece. I’m not saying Jefferson didn’t have faults. I defer to Chernow on that score. I’m equally certain that he was not the one-dimensional person Chernow presents here.

There is a fair amount of criticism here. But I really enjoyed the book. Chernow’s prose is streamlined and he tells a good story. I learned a lot, especially about Eliza Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Most importantly, I have a new appreciation for Alexander Hamilton himself and his role in the founding of our country.

Review of show (11-6-16, Chicago)

Sometimes, things don’t live up to their hype. No worries here. This is an amazing show. The music is tightly constructed and powerful. The plots, both political and personal, are rendered well. The performance made the arc of the story clearer – Hamilton’s initial timidity becomes his consuming assertiveness. Burr’s friendly mentorship gives way to his selfish opportunism. Imagine being criticized, as he was, for campaigning openly. I hadn’t realized from just listening to the soundtrack (over and over and over again) that Burr serves as a kind of narrator. That makes his role, here played by Joshua Henry, central to the success of the show, and Henry was most certainly up to the task. Miranda also deserves a high five for the roles he assigns to the women in Hamilton’s life. They are both aware of the limitations society places on them and bursting at the seams to break out of them. The last image of the play – which I won’t spoil – was inspiring.

I don’t really have the vocabulary to talk about choreography, but think back on the first time you heard that there was going to be a musical about Alexander Hamilton. As much as I wondered what the songs would be like, I also wondered about the dancing. What sort of dance goes along with the story of the American Revolution? But Andy Blankenbuehler makes it work.

The cast was exceptionally strong. Eliza Hamilton (Ari Afsar) was tightly coiled, complex and convincing. Alexander Gemignani was wonderful as King George. Chris De’Sean Lee (LaFayette / Jefferson) and Wallace Smith (Hercules Mulligan / James Madison) were absolute scene stealers. Hamilton himself (Joseph Morales) was solid, but labored under my perception of Miranda’s performance.

I want to talk about casting. When I first heard that Miranda was casting his show with entirely non-white actors, it didn’t concern me much. I wasn’t surprised when very little came of the controversy over the casting call. Put it this way. If Miranda told me that I wasn’t the right person to play me, I’d step aside. I thought, initially, that his motive was to give opportunities to those had not traditionally been offered such opportunities.

Over time, I wanted there to be more to it. Who among us has not wanted to, for example, cast Romeo and Juliet in a way that illuminates its meaning (Palestinians as Capulets; Israelis as Montagues, for example)? What the production suggests is that the casting reflects that no one, at that time, was truly an American. Everyone came from somewhere else. And the constant reminders of the circumstances and locations of Hamilton’s birth could not help – two days before the election – remind of the immigration debate today. When Jefferson, Burr and Madison out on a West Indian accent in order to insult him, I admit I winced.

But I still wonder if there’s more. In both New York and Chicago, I believe, Hamilton is played by a lighter-skinned actors and his antagonists are dark-skinned. Coincidence or deliberate? In the production I saw, the actress (Samantha Marie Ware) playing the little mentioned Schuyler sister, Peggy, also becomes Maria Reynolds, who has (spoiler alert) an affair with Hamilton. What’s Miranda up to with these contrasts?

And I wanted Miranda’s commitment to non-white casting to be reflected in the audience. No such luck, at least on the afternoon that we saw it.

The show is tremendous and important. My father’s test of a great musical is – Do you walk out humming the tunes? I most certainly did and am looking forward to the mixtape version as well — Hamilton mixtape. And I am looking forward to the opportunity to see it again. And again. And again.

 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Vuong)

The title captures the essence of this collection perfectly. Beauty juxtaposed with violence. The beauty of nature and of love, and in particular, of the love between men. The love between a father and a son, and the love between two men. Both beautiful and both sometimes violent in emotion, if not action. And the Vietnam War, always and irrevocably, lingers in the background. From “Into the Breach”  —

                                          It’s simple. I don’t know

how to love a man

gently. Tenderness

a thing to be beaten

into.

It’s tough to pick a favorite. “Trojan,” “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back,” and “Anaphora as a Coping Mechanism” are all outstanding. So are “Torso of Air,” “Logophobia” and “Devotion.” See, it is hard to choose.

“Devotion,” like others in this collection, is inspired by Greek mythology. Here are the closing lines from the closing poem of this essential collection (I may not be able to capture the proper spacing):

&so what – if my feathers /

are burning. I

never asked for flight.

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

Poets.org – Vuong

Poetry Foundation – Vuong

Buy it!

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game (Pilon)

I first heard about this story on one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible with Roman Mars (99% Invisible: The Landlord’s Game). It intrigued me. A game that was originally designed by a woman to be anti-capitalist had been claimed by a man and become all about capitalism. Could there be a more American story? It reminded me of the depiction of McDonald’s in Fast Food Nation. Once a Mom ‘n Pop, a pull yourself up by your own bootstraps success story, well, now look at it now.

Pilon’s research and storytelling are great. Though she self-consciously struggles to explain elements of copyright and trademark law, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. This, too, is an American story, and one I recommend.

Anti-Monopoly – the game

The Shadow Girls (Mankell)

I am a big fan of Mankell’s work, not just his Wallender books, but all of it. I know he tried to step away from the Wallender books at times. There’s a part of The Shadow Girls that seems to be him castigating himself for not writing something more meaningful than crime novels. Yet, I think it was the seriousness of the issues Mankell raised – such as the fear of immigrants – that elevates them above most of the rest of the flock. In The Shadow Girls, Mankell again has immigrants on his mind as his protagonist (alter ego?) gets pressured into conducting a writing seminar for three shadow girls. Much of the novel is taken up with these women telling their stories. This brings the plot, such as it is, full circle. Jesper Humlin, a consistent but seemingly unremarkable poet, is being pressured by his publisher to write a crime novel. Everyone around him, including his mother, is writing one. (Was this really the perception Mankell thought people had of his work? That anyone could do it?) But he holds out. He wants to write a book about immigrants. The Shadow Girls turns out to be that book. Here’s a remarkable excerpt from one of the stories, told to Jesper by Tea-Bag, who has re-christened herself, for a new life requires a new name and, more practically, any use of her real name can jeopardize her status:

I know that the bridge we all thought we saw as we stood on the beach in the northernmost part of Africa, that continent we were fleeing and already mourning, that bridge will one day be built. It will be built, if only because the mountains of corpses pressed together on the bottom of the ocean will one day rise above the sea like a new country and a bridge of skulls and bones will form the bridge that no one, no guards, dogs, drunk sailors, or smugglers will be able to topple. Only then will this cruel insanity come to a stop, these anxious flocks of people who are driven on in desperation only to end up living their lives in the underworld, becoming the cavemen of modern times.