A House of My Own: Stories from My Life (Cisneros)

In Susan Shillinglaw’s On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, she advises readers to dip into her book for a bit and then the Steinbeck and to repeat the cycle. I probably should have done that with Cisneros’ extensive collection of short pieces and my recent re-read of The House on Mango Street. This is a much longer book than Mango, and this one, despite several apparent attempts to do otherwise, is in date order (and therefore in contrast with Mango). Hence, it becomes kind of long. At times, Cisneros comes off as arrogant, both in the pieces themselves and in the introductions she wrote for each for this collection. Still, there are enough gems to make the collection worthwhile. I am still not sure whether I can consider Cisneros more than a one-hit wonder (did anyone read and like Caramelo? I couldn’t get through it), but this collection does suggest she has more to contribute.


The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays (Camus)

This one was a book club selection, so if you are so inclined, you don’t have to worry about me. A veteran of The Stranger only, I have always been curious about this. I’m just not sure my philosophical chops are up to reading such things anymore. There were definitely certain points that made more sense to me, the connections to Hamlet, for example. There is certainly much to highlight and I’ll be counting on my book club to help me understand any of it. I am still interested in trying more of his fiction.

Moments of Reprieve (Levi)

I am not sure what to call the stories Levi presents, but essays (what’s on the cover) seems wrong. They are more than vignettes. They are, perhaps, sketches of decency amidst the everyday horror of Levi’s experience at Auschwitz. In addition to the beauty evoked by Levi’s account of the surprising appearance of a violin or the astonishing decision by a prisoner to ask for his food to be saved for a day because it was Yom Kippur (and the equally astonishing decision to grant this request) is Levi’s apparent lack of bitterness. His criticisms are gentle but definitive. Perhaps it’s because he knows that the horrors have been described elsewhere. I was surprised to learn that he’d read biographies of various leading Nazis.

These stories, these as true as they can be stories (Levi acknowledges the limits of memory and perspective) areas human and detailed and as moving as language can create. Each one could become a whole novel. Instead, Levi paints his sketch and leaves the gaps and the colors and the implications for his readers to supply.

The Empty Space (Brook)

As a long-time theatre fan, I have heard Peter Brook referenced innumerable times as one of the faces on the theatrical Mt. Rushmore. I just checked; he’s still alive. So when I saw this book, I thought I might gain some insight what makes him so revered. For much of it, though, he comes off as a grumpy old man in love with Shakespeare and little else. The book sparks whenever he talks about his specific approaches to directing. To his credit, he is aware of the contradictions in what he’s saying. His preference for the ‘rough’ style of theatre comes off as a bit romanticized and superficial. The claim that somehow better theatre is being done in bars than in theatres because it is in bars (and all that that involves) seems just silly to me.

The center of Brook’s theatrical universe is Brecht, and this book is the first time I’ve even begun to understand the notion of “alienation.” I’m more inclined to dig into one of Brook’s other favored playwrights, Samuel Beckett. I’ve always liked his work more than Brecht’s.

I had trouble with Brook’s obsession with Shakespeare, whom I love. Older, though, is not, by definition, better; it’s just older. I, for one, could do without ever seeing another Noel Coward play, even if Kevin Kline is in it.

While I agree with Brook’s desire that the design process evolve along with the directing process, I suspect it’s a privilege he earned, and not one that many theatres can afford.

I enjoyed being inside Brook’s head for an intense 140 pages. And I do have my own opinions about what makes good theatre. I think it will always survive, though I do think the desire to cultivate a new and diverse audience is, right now, at odds with the increasing ticket prices. I think there can be good theatre both in bars for five bucks and on Broadway for five hundred. I just want to get more people into both spaces.

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Chang)

I was suspicious of this small book. The slang title seemed contrived to me. So did the optimism.

I was wrong.

Even the cover is thought-provoking –

Are those hands up as in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”? Or are they calming hands telling us, as two different people do in this book, that “we gon’ be alright”?

Of all of the essays in the collection, only two disappoint. Oddly, one is Chang’s most personal one “The In-Betweens,” however much he distances himself from it by using second person. It comes across as out of place. The other unsuccessful one is “Making Lemonade,” a cursory look at Beyonce’s film. What’s here is fine. One just gets the sense that Chang probably has more to say on this topic. Unfortunately, these two are the last in the collection. Together, they sort of kill the momentum that Chang has developed.

But the rest, notably, “Is Diversity for White People?” and “Hands Up” are incredibly pointed and powerful. They can easily keep company with Coates, Baldwin and the like. “Is Diversity for White People?” (subtitled On Fearmongering, Picture Taking, and Avoidance) rewards re-reading and conversation.

Am I as confident as Chang, particularly when it comes to the apparent success of social media? Probably not. But given the events these days, this one brought me the most hope, no, not hope, but assurance that I’ve felt in a while.

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 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.