White Man, Listen! (Wright)

This book was put together, the bookseller told me, in response to James Baldwin telling Wright to stop writing protest novels (Was Baldwin right when he criticized Wright for writing a protest novel?). I say that this book was “put together” rather than written because it’s four of Wright’s talks put together into this short book. Generally, they do flow together well. And I want to say ahead of time that I am a big fan of Black Boy and like Native Son a great deal, though it can be hard to wade through some of the speeches in the third section. But this book felt like a letdown. Perhaps Wright is out of his element here? He paints in such broad strokes here that it’s hard to find much here compelling or, in Wright’s terms, worth listening to. In addition to his almost obsessive use of generalizations, Wright’s arguments often come down to statements akin to, “You know in your heart that this is true.” The first section, “The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People,” is the most worthwhile one. It provides a framework for Wright’s thinking, though he too often comes across as someone (to allude to a very popular musical) who thinks that he’s the smartest person in the room. Surprisingly, it is the third section, the one about literature, that is most disappointing. He skims over a series of poets and makes brief observations that he seems to think are true because he made them. And, in a kind of grouchy way, he criticizes his contemporaries (including Baldwin) for lacking the spirit of the writers he’s mentioned.

So, it’s a quick read, but more as an artifact, a piece in a continuing argument, than as anything that really resonates today. Baldwin’s work seems to be going through a renaissance now because his words continue to be urgent. But Wright’s speeches, somewhat like pieces of Native Son, seem dated. And his relentless comments against religion are irksome and ungenerous. Wright has an agenda here, and he imposes it against a backdrop of people that he, alone (he claims), can understand. If anything resonates today, it is his emphasis on the individual, a piece of what some might call neoliberalism these days.


The Brother / Sister Plays (McCraney)

I think it was the Steppenwolf fan non-fiction biography that put me in the mood to read some plays. I saw the first, In the Red and Brown Water, at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. I could tell then that there was something new and exciting about this playwright, though I can’t claim that I forecast his being the source for something like the Oscar-winning film Moonlight. Like Suzan-Lori Parks, he is playing with what to me are conventions of drama. There are multiple occasions when he simply puts the name of the character in the script. For example (from the third play, Marcus) –




How, as a director, are you meant to honor that on stage? Should our focus shift from one to another? Does this anticipate McCraney’s camera eye? The camera, in this case, should move from Marcus to Osha to Shua?

McCraney also has the characters narrate their own stage directions. From In the Red and Brown Water


She wanna be friends with us?


Smiling like the light of the night.

Ask her.


Note that ‘smiling like the light of the night’ is neither italicized nor is it in parentheses. There is, in fact, no real spacing between the two lines. Elegba is meant to say the words.

I think it’s cool.

The stories, the first two of which are set in the ‘Distant Present’ and all of which are set in a fictional bayou town in Louisiana, are filled with water. There is a coming storm. There is also unnerving dream that is filled with water. There are multiple intertwined generations. There is love of all kinds. There is even a character named Terrell in Marcus. Granted, it’s spelled differently than the author’s name, but it’s an interesting choice, especially since the character is not such a nice guy. The stories are not so much the calm before the storm as the tension between the calm and the actual storm. I hope that someone decides to produce all three plays together.


The Argonauts (Nelson)

This book is difficult to describe or to even categorize. The back of the book calls it “Memoir / Criticism,” a combination I’ve not seen before. At times, it felt like I was walking into the middle of a conversation, but that is probably more of a reflection of a lack of experience and knowledge when it comes to the language and issues of gender and sexuality. I was definitely struck by Nelson’s observation that to use language, as she does, is to name and names, indeed words, no matter how many you use, are limiting. And when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, it seems like writing on these issues is akin to trying to lasso the wind. This prompted Nelson’s title:

I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections whick will be forever new.”

I thought he passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.

I also appreciated the way Nelson questioned the priorities of the queer community when it comes to the military and marriage. She writes, “if we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.” It was not deliberate, but it felt relevant to read this on the same day the White House announced its absurd and vicious intention to ban transgender people from the military. If I am going to enter that conversation, I need to make sure I enter appropriately, and Nelson has opened the door for me a bit. I need to enter without limits and without limiting anyone else.

Much of the book also centers on Nelson’s experience with pregnancy and her “fluidly gendered partner,” Harry. Their attempts, eventually successful, to have a child are juxtaposed with the need for both of them to deal with their respective mothers, both of whom are dying. And for a time, Nelson has a stalker.

Even if I did not always understand the conversation here, I found Nelson’s writing electric. And funny (see above). I look forward to reading more.

The Half Has Never Been Told (Baptist)

I found this book persuasive, but remarkably uneven. I think it’s because Baptist tried to overlay too many frames on top of it. It could also be due to the 12 years he spent on it. The metaphorical layer works in some sections, as in the chapters “Right Hand” and “Left Hand.” In other chapters, it seems forced. In still others, especially later in the book, it seems absent. Baptist also seeks to correct historical myth,  like the one that slave labor was inefficient. To do so, he cites statistics, another frame. Some of the stronger sections in the latter half of the book comment on how enslavers (his word – and the right one, I think) invented capitalist structures to protect and expand slavery, another frame (and this one seems most connected to the subtitle of the book, Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism). He reviews the political arguments about the extension of slavery. Here, I was impressed by the balanced way he presented the arguments of those who favored slavery, like Calhoun. Baptist also used narratives – some seemingly imagined, some the product of research – to illustrate his points, two more frames. And then there’s the chronological frame.

I’m not saying that these writing styles and frames are not all related. Here, though, Baptist was just not able to mesh them together well. Some 400+ page books seem quick. This one, though, seemed epic. And I admit to only skimming the Afterword to the paperback edition. I hope Baptist’s next effort will be shorter, more focused, and more stylistically coherent. He is clearly a talented researcher and I learned a great deal from this book. I just wish it didn’t feel like I was fighting so hard to get through the pages.

The Economist withdraws its ridiculous review of the book

The Long Way Home (Penny)

I know my Louise Penny guides will be dismayed that I went out of order again, but this is the one I had and I was in the mood to begin one of her mysteries. I am still hooked on the series and its characters. I found Penny’s ability to write about art to be particularly evocative here. Maybe the science teacher on the boat was a little too convenient, and what seems to be the requisite violence at the end was a bit too choreographed. And I wish Penny wouldn’t shift her style quite so abruptly when the pieces start together for Gamache et al. For a good portion of the book, we are told everything, save for the story of Gamache’s book. Still, it is named. Then we start getting sentences like, “And then he figured it out.” It’s a false suspense, I think, to just (suddenly withhold information). I realize I’ve listed some negatives here, but they are far outweighed by the psychological mysteries, both with the characters I’ve seen develop over time (if out of order) and the details of this particular mystery. And it is not often that I stop a piece of fiction to search out some details to see if they are real places (they were) or Penny just made them up. I enjoyed that.

And yes, I’ll try to get them in the right order from now on!

Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Bloom)

I read a newspaper article about this a while ago, so when I saw the book for five bucks, I figured I’d give it a try. I’ve been to Iowa a few times, and I am Jewish. The juxtaposition of ultra-Orthodox Jews and small-town Iowa seemed rich with possibilities. And Bloom outlines them, folding in the narrative of his own family’s move to Iowa. The problem here is Bloom. He has the recipe for a strong, important piece of creative non-fiction, and he swings and misses. As a narrator, he’s just annoying and he makes himself into more of a character in the conflict that he needs to be. In the Afterword, he takes a kind of martyr’s pride in the fact that people seemed to love or hate his book when it first came out. I neither loved nor hated it. It was just kind of . . . meh. Mostly, I wish another writer had been present to write the story.

Outline (Cusk)

The blurb on the front of my edition of the book, by Heidi Julavits (a writer I admire), sums up both the successes of this book and its pitfalls. For me, the latter outweighed the former, so I won’t be continuing with the trilogy. Julavits calls Cusk “one of the smartest writers alive.” Hyperbole aside, the writing here is certainly smart, much it in the form of intricate conversations that take place on airplanes, in cafes, etc.. Cusk negotiates these conversations with such nuance that I wanted to be in the conversations; I just didn’t want to particularly be reading them. As in Alison’s Nine Island, the protagonist is reconsidering relationships. In fact, she seems to be reconsidering taking an active part in her whole life. The narrator says

I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.

So if you’re in the mood for a kind of My Dinner with Andre in book form, this is for you.