The Book of Disquiet (Pessoa)

Though I am no fan of genres, I did find myself flipping to the back cover of this book more than once because I kept wondering: What is this? Apparently, the author called it a “factless autobiography.” Elsewhere, it’s listed as fiction.

It’s a non-linear meditation. Part-philosophy, part character study. It’s presented in fragments that were, I believe, re-ordered posthumously. But order, I suspect, did not matter much to Pessoa. There are elements of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” here. The ‘character,’ if the author’s persona can be called such a thing, is a clerk who seems to manage accounts. There are parts that I annotated heavily, parts that I found repellent, and parts I didn’t understand.

Though Pessoa would probably reject the notion of reading the book and then discussing it with others, this book definitely proves that it is not good for a reader to be alone.

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Always Running (Rodriguez)

These are words from the ground level. Rodriguez, an active gang member at a young age (periodically, he reminds us how old he is when something has happened – and it’s always a shock), tells his story – of gang life, home life, school life – and how he found his way back from what seemed to be an early date with a violent death. He not only found his way back, but he becomes a kind of La Vida Loca interrupter, seeking to divert those who are making the kinds of choices he once made.

In his new introduction, Rodriguez recounts a sadly ironic moment in which he is invited to speak at a school but because his book is banned, he can’t bring in a copy. I grant you that as much as I became energized by the prospect of using this book in the classroom, my possibly prudish self found his detailed descriptions of his sexual exploits to be a little much. They are not enough to prevent me from using it one day, but it definitely pushed the book into the upper grades, and would have me on my guard for those who would object.

Rodriguez writes smoothly, at times poetically, though sometimes his dialogue can come across as a bit wooden and his accounts of messy moments can come across as too neat. Still, this was an eye-opener for me and inspiring. Art and writing and some teachers helped contribute to Rodriguez’s emergence, and those are all things I support.

Lou Boudreau: My Hall of Fame Life on the Field and Behind the Mic (Boudreau with Schneider)

This was an entertaining look at the life of the Indians’ player-manager. It’s a bit lightweight at times, and Boudreau can be predictably crotchety and other times, but it is a slice of life look at the way baseball used to work from one of its stars. Along the way, we meet Bill Veeck, Larry Doby and a few other memorable names. We see the Tribe win the 1948 series and a few efforts by Boudreau to extend his career, especially as a manager. The ‘Behind the Mic’ part gets short shrift here. There are very stories here beyond his nervousness about the job and the sudden death of his first broadcasting partner.

The Gentleman from Ohio (L. Stokes with Chanoff)

I am still trying to learn more about Cleveland’s past, present and future, and I know enough to understand that Louis Stokes and his brother, Carl, were major parts of the city’s past. This autobiography, completed just before Stokes died at 90 and published posthumously, really becomes engaging when Stokes discusses first the Supreme Court he argued, Terry v. Ohio and then his work in Congress, both his role in forming the Congressional Black Caucus and his leadership of various committees, including the investigation into the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.. And I admit I was glad when he was willing to let down his guard a bit and share some of his anger about the racism he faced even as his accomplishments and recognition increased.

A remarkable man. A remarkable family. A pretty good book.

Revolutionary Suicide (Newton)

This is an amazing book, one that I’m sorry I did not find earlier in life. The evolution and clarity of Newton’s vision, taken together with his accounts of his legal struggles and political acts, is both coherent and persuasive (and, perhaps, self-serving). I know just a little about the Black Panthers and want to continue to investigate, but there seems to have been much that was good about their work.

Newton’s sexism (which he seems to have inherited from his father) and his homophobia are not to be cast aside or minimized, but I think the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of ideological purity. People,  famous people, leaders have flaws. None of us is perfect. I cannot find the origin of the idea (perhaps Voltaire?), but the notion of not letting perfect be the enemy of better seems to apply here (and in more current situations).

I found this book to be riveting and inspiring. And anyone who inspires me to read Nietzche gets a tip of the hat from me.

The Periodic Table (Levi)

I am no chemist. My efforts in high school were absurd (and so was my teacher). But I understood enough to see the chemistry here not just as chemistry – because it was still that. Levi clearly has a high regard for his own vocation as a chemist. But it’s also (and this element was more accessible to me) chemistry as metaphor. The ability to control, transform, analyze, indeed to be rational, when all around you is anything but (i.e., WW2). Science, here, in contrast perhaps to any sense of a deity, is dependable, both in the form of its sometimes monotonous practice and in content. There are rules, laws here – not even a fascist can deny them. Therefore, there is freedom, at least in the mind.

It’s a tough book to classify, which is okay by me. Levi considered it a “micro-history.” I don’t have that category, and since I don’t think it would fit anything else, I did the best I could.

Nigger (Gregory with Lipsyte)

That was a hard word to type; it’s a word I will not say. But Gregory wanted that title. so I figure I shouldn’t shy away from typing it. And I stand completely with Gregory here –

Gregory responds to students protesting the Dean who recommended his book

Gregory is a terrific writer. He moves between detail and big picture smoothly and effectively. There were more than a few passages that just blew me away.

And there was so much here I just did not know about him and his involvement in the Civil Rights Revolution – revolution is the word he thinks is more apt than ‘movement.’ If at times, he attributes a bit too much to his intuition, well, that’s okay. But the treatment of his wife after a personal tragedy? Not okay.

I appreciated how Gregory was able to explain his own entry into the Revolution, whether it was forcing a prison audience to be integrated before he performed or marching with Medgar Evers. I also appreciated that he was willing to turn down an opportunity to speak at the March on Washington – at least initially. And his comments are very powerful when he connects the events in the United States with those around the world. I’m not sure the word Vietnam is ever mentioned; but it’s always there.

I remain puzzled as to why he called his need or instinct to become involved in Civil Rights his “monster.” It’s likely limiting to say that the monster was just that – he needed to speak and be heard like most of us need to breathe.

But from beginning to end, the title makes sense. Gregory makes it clear what’s at stake. And by his measure, indeed by almost every measure, we aren’t there yet.