Embryoyo (Young)

I have confidence that when it comes to poetry, the Pulitzer committee must know more than me. I didn’t enjoy this collection at all. I found it overly clever, deliberately obtuse, and generally dull. There are definitely some entertaining moments (Oh who cares about right or wrong / when Aphrodite flashes her nipples?), but they seem like a triumph of style over substance.

This was the one, and I mean, one exception –

That dusty bubble gum, once ubiquitous as starlings,
is no more, my love. Whistling dinosaurs now populate
only animation studios, the furious actions of angels
causing their breasts to flop out in mannerist
frescos flake away as sleet holds us in its teeth.
And the bus-station’s old urinals go under
the grindstone and the youthful spelunkers
graduate into the wrinkle-causing sun. The sea
seemingly a constant to the naked eye is one
long goodbye, perpetually the tide recedes,
beaches dotted with debris. Unto each is given
a finite number of addresses, ditties to dart
the heart to its moments of sorrow and swoon.
The sword’s hilt glints, the daffodils bow down,
all is temporary as a perfect haircut, a kitten
in the lap, yet sitting here with you, my darling,
waiting for a tuna melt and side of slaw
seems all eternity I’ll ever need
and all eternity needs of me.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Davis)

I will forever count the opportunity to hear Ms. Davis speak in person as one of the formative moments of my life. She speaks and writes with such precision and clarity that it is impossible to remain unmoved. I think this is the second or third book of hers that I’ve read, and again, this is a collection of speeches. This is not a criticism, only a preface to say that any reference to repetition is one consequence of this format.

Davis takes as her starting point a familiar King quotation – that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. She argues, in many different contexts (including Turkey), for “transnational solidarities” and a greater recognition of and vocabulary for talking about intersectionality. I think I grasp the concept of intersectionality, but as much as I read and try to learn, it can seem overwhelming to try to understand how and why the struggles in Ferguson and Palestine are connected. I mean, I can draw the parallels in broad strokes, but that seems superficial.

I admit that, as a Jew, reading the sections about Israel and Palestine were difficult. For the first time, this book prompted me to think about trying to find a way to get to Palestine to see things for myself. Davis’ comments about those corporations who profit from the punishment industry are compelling. And I can see how that yields to a call for the boycott, divest, sanction movement. I am not ready to take that step. . . yet. I have to think more about why.

Based on this book, I clearly have much to learn about feminism. I welcome any suggestions about where to begin.

I continue to admire Davis’ vision – her vision of a country that focuses on the collective, “a transformed society, one in which people’s needs, not profits, constitute the driving force.” I want to live in that place and I’m in for the “constant struggle” to get there.

The Sellout (Beatty)

Dear Mr. Beatty –

Congratulations on the Man Booker Prize. Though I am not a fan of the decision to include Americans, that takes nothing away from you. Bravo.

Years ago, a colleague/friend/great reader chose White Boy Shuffle for our English Department Book Club. I don’t remember much about it, other than a generally negative reaction because I found it to be too interested in being clever.

Nevertheless, that same person as well as another reader I respect convinced me to give this one a go. I finished it a few minutes ago.

Incredible. 289 pages of densely packed satire. I don’t think you missed a sentence or an opportunity. There are no sentences like, “He walked into the office.” Everything takes aim at someone or something. I got some of them. This brings me to another question.

Was this book meant for me? Or am I (being white) like one of the white people who shows up at the Open Mic and laughs too long and too loud? Were you telling me, the white reader, “Do I look like I’m f—ing joking with you? This s— ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the f— out! This is our thing.” I don’t think so because you undermine even this guy by ending the book with the question your protagonist wished he’d asked: “So what exactly is our thing?” But if I’m wrong, and I am to be ejected from the Donut shop, what does that say to / about the Man Booker committee?

I am sure you are familiar with Tom Lehrer’s quotation: “When Kissinger won the Nobel peace prize, satire died.” Now I just looked it up. He is, if the internet can be believed (see there, I did it too), still alive. We all know about the fake news going around these days. (I can’t help myself.) Maybe the Russians hacked his Wikipedia page. (Okay, enough.) I wonder what he’d say about Trump winning the Presidential election. I wonder what you’d say.

So I’m left, as I so often am, with Shakespeare. Or maybe Chinese food. You know how after you eat a big Chinese dinner, you’re hungry about an hour later? That’s kind of how I feel about this book. It is indeed “full of sound and fury,” but, upon reflection, what does it signify (or is that question just proof that I just don’t get it? The flip side could be that the book has received all sorts of praise because people want to prove they can get it.)

I’m certain that if you actually read this letter, you’d mock me in ways that would make even me laugh. And I did laugh a few times when I read this book. Mostly, though, I wondered (and wonder) what would happen if you took your considerable talent and tried to tell a damn story instead of repeatedly showing us that you’re the cleverest kid in the class?

Congrats again on your award. I’m sure you’ll always have readers, but as for me, I “won’t be fooled again.”


Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Roy)

I know so little about India, Pakistan, Kashmir – why is that? I have an idea. Whatever the reason, it’s past time to begin filling in that gap. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Roy makes the case that what she calls “gush-up” economics (in contrast to “trickle down” economics) operates in a similar pattern regardless of geography. One of the steps is the curtailment of a free press (which includes Roy herself). Another is turning dissenting groups against each other and, by virtue of the power of funding, isolating them into NGO-based silos to help prevent collaboration. Follow the money, she contends, and you will find the source of the problem (i.e., Bill Gates).

Nilekani’s technocratic obsession with gathering data is consistent with Bill Gates’s obsession with digital databases, numerical targets, and “scorecards of progress” as though it were a lack of information that is the cause of world hunger, and not colonialism, debt, and skewed profit-oriented corporate policy.

As for this information, Roy argues:

The gathering of information to control people is fundamental to any ruling power.

There is too much overlap between business and politics in India. (Sound like anywhere else you know?) This leads to the first of Roy’s 4 policy proposals (of which I understand three – the 4th?)

  1. an end to cross-ownership in business
  2. natural resources cannot be privatized
  3. everybody has the right to shelter, education, and health care
  4. the children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth

I sort of understand the thought behind the 4th item, but I am not sure whether I agree or whether it would even be possible to legislate such a thing.

A short and powerful book.

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game (Barry)

I remember hearing about this game, but I had no idea until I read this book that participants included Cal Ripken, Jr., Wade Boggs, Bruce Hurst and others I knew of later in the Major Leagues. I really liked how Barry wove in a narrative of the game, the stories of particular participants (players, administrators, coaches, managers, fans, etc.), and the story of Providence (including incredible details about the stadium as well as an inevitable stop at Dunkin’ Donuts).

The book made me think of a long ago edition of Sports Illustrated. The cover was simply a copy of a random day’s list of transactions, and the authors followed the human beings who’d been traded, injured, released, etc.. It, like this book, was a good reminder that as easy as it can be to dismiss professional athletes, everyone has a story and some of the stories do not end in dreams or even positively. I think Barry makes a good choice to spend so much time on Dave Koza; his is a very human story. I am looking forward to getting to more minor league games next season.

Swing Time (Smith)

Zadie Smith is on my hardback list. There aren’t many on it, but when one of those authors comes out with a new book, I buy it in hardback, often on the first day, and tend to finish it quickly. Sometimes, I wonder why I don’t savor it. After all, the sooner I finish it, the longer the wait until the next book. But I can’t. When it comes to certain authors, I absolutely fail the marshmallow test.

And this is another superb effort from Smith. I marvel at her ability to work both large and small. By that, I mean, she can invest an apparently small moment or minor character with a remarkable degree of nuance and importance. She can evoke both an awkward conversation and a monumental scene with such precision that the reader is immediately and eagerly swept up into the present tense of the world Smith has created here.

And her motif here – that of dance – dance lessons, dances watched, dance movies, the appropriation of dance – proves a powerful entry point into Smith’s exploration of the intricacies of race. There are no answers here. Nor are there recommendations. Instead, there is the relentless reminder of how race inhabits so much in our lives, from the tennis player we support to the music we listen to.

And there is nothing simple here. Though Aimee may be an Angela Jolie-Madonna send-up, that doesn’t make her wrong or evil. Like Tracey and our nameless protagonist, she grows. She has good intentions, faces the challenges of day-to-day existence and tries to come out the other side. But even Aimee, for example, can’t stay young forever. It’s not new to say that people are complicated and that we complicate things every way we can. But there is hope here, a kind of resilience, powerfully evoked by the book’s final image which, like the rest of the novel, will stay with me for a long, long time. At least until Smith’s next book comes out. Which can’t be soon enough for me.

“They Can’t Kill Us All” : Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement – Lowery

This is a hard book to classify. It is, as its title asserts, about a new era in America’s racial justice movement, inspired by the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson. To be more specific, the thesis of the book is that the movement was not only inspired by the killing of Mike Brown, but the aftermath – the 4 1/2 hours that his body remained on the street, the protests, and the police response to them.

But it also a story of Lowery, an accidental star for having been arrested for apparently not dispersing quickly enough from a McDonald’s near the site of Brown’s death. It becomes his story in that he, like others (including me, to be honest), moved from considering the death of Brown to be a specific incident (as Charles Krauthammer, among others, would have us believe) to something that was and is symbolic of a larger, structural, systemic and deliberate destruction of the bodies of people of color.

Lowery does not hold himself above or outside us all. He is critical of the media’s role, the kinds of questions asked, the short-term attention span, the inclination for hyperbole, the partisanship masquerading as neutrality. What emerges here is a genuine respect for the ordinary people, never elected, never ‘perfectly’ qualified, who meet in church basements and in pancake houses to plan and execute the small, local, and essential steps necessary for keeping the country’s attention – especially in these tense times – that black lives matter.