Archives for category: Non-fiction (essays)

Solnit combines current events and the work of writers like Woolf, Faludi and Freidan to position herself in what she calls the gender wars. She’s both pragmatic and passionate. And you know what? She’s absolutely right. Even though I think that she (like others) makes too much of the significance of social media traffic (that a certain hashtag is trending means something; it just doesn’t mean everything), her point that we are saying things we wouldn’t say 50 years ago and that we have words for things (rape culture, date rape) that we didn’t and couldn’t name 50 years ago is well-taken. Solnit’s precise and straightforward essays (several of them begin with wonderfully metaphorical passages), particularly “Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite,” made me see connections among colonialism, capitalism and our rape culture. I cannot recall, at this point, what I thought of Anita Hill’s testimony when I first heard it, but I am quite sure that I wish I’d read this first. Better yet, I wish I’d kept quiet.

I spotted a handful of examples of this new (to me) series at Mac’s Books and was intrigued. Of course, Salinger, with his reputation for privacy, was a difficult choice. The man wanted his privacy. I was upset when someone tried to ‘out’ Elena Ferrante; why would I buy this book? I didn’t buy the Salinger biography or see the film. I was hooked by the prospect of hearing him in his own words. I kept a copy of the news clipping announcing the forthcoming publication of Hapworth 16, 1924 until it was yellow and brittle. Now I understand why the book never appeared. The book provides accounts of people who had more or less contact with him as well as a partial transcript of a deposition. So is making this book and reading it as bad as those who made the pilgrimage to his home on the off chance of having a few minutes of conversation? I’m still not sure.

But I think they got it right in the movie Field of Dreams: “The man’s done enough. Leave him alone.” So maybe that means I wish I hadn’t read it. I was one of those teens. For some reason, I can remember exactly where I was when I first started reading The Catcher in the Rye; it has stayed with me ever since.

They say that every generation gets the artist it needs. Currently, we seem to be realizing that we already have the artist we need and we should have paid more attention to him the first time – James Baldwin. Like Ra Washington, Jesmyn Ward and her new generation pay tribute to Baldwin’s stunning collection, The Fire Next Time.

Pretty much all of these essays take their own angle into the prompt they received from Ward. I admired Wendy S. Walters’ “Lonely in America,” for its thought-provoking research into the way we treat our dead. Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ piece on Phillis Wheatley’s husband reminds us to be wary of who tells whose stories. The form and content of Kevin Young’s “Blacker Than Thou” is amazing. Kiese Laymon’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (a Prequel)” sent me to listen to OutKast. “Black and Blue” by Garnette Cadogan and “Know Your Rights!” by Emily Raboteau work well together since their focus is on walking. Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” is the star of the show, with its careful consideration of the treatment of black bodies.

I will definitely use a few of these in class. An important, timely and well-written book. And a good reminder to (re)read Baldwin.

Washington calls this an extended essay. I’m not so sure. I think it defies genre. It’s an essay, a poem, a novel, a play. There are even some autobiographical elements. And philosophy. I was energized its hybrid nature. It’s challenging.

The only thing I can say about all of it – even the parts I am not sure I understood – is that it burns. The intensity is relentless. Inspired, I think, by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Washington is not angry. “I AM,” the prologue opens, “Rage.” And this book (I think it’s safe to call it that) which was written over two days takes us on the jagged rivers of this rage. It’s a book that deserves to be held close, re-visited. It’s a reminder, a reckoning. Open it at any point. The words will fly off the page. Pay attention.

Luckily, Castro does not write the same way he speaks. In this collection of what he calls Reflections, Castro, who turns 90 soon and holds the record for the longest speech ever at the United Nations, offers his thoughts on the early years of Obama’s first term. Though he seems to admire Obama (certainly a great deal more than W, McCain or other political figures), he returns frequently to his central thesis – that Obama is inherently hampered by the system he leads. This collection, expanded for this 2012 edition, was obviously printed before Obama’s recent visit. I suspect he would think it was a step, but not nearly enough of one. And you know what? I agree. End the blockade.

Dominguez, refreshingly pro-Revolution, makes many good points, both in his essays and his interviews, about the challenges of race in Cuba. The problem – likely more the fault of his editor – is that he makes them over and over again. He recognizes that despite Castro’s claim to the contrary, racism was not eliminated in 1962. And he is probably right to say that ignoring the issue for a long time not only did not help the situation but almost certainly made it worse. And he has recommendations, both for Cuba and for those who would seek to have input there (i.e., the United States).

The problem is his goal. He wants racism eliminated. Is that possible? His methods are legislation, social programs, and education. But I’m not sure even those three can eradicate it. He says the racism is not institutional, but holds the government responsible for not acknowledging the histories of the various groups when they leveled the playing field. And he never adequately explain how the government is supposed to both acknowledge the history of a group and maintain socialism.

So, read 1-2 or two of these essays. Or hear him talk or be interviewed. But this whole collection? Not necessary.


I don’t know the circumstances of these essays. Were they written for various publications and then just compiled here? So many of them are of such similar length and that, by the end, became one of my objections. But more to that point later.

Though Gay explains why she thinks she’s a ‘bad’ feminist, I think she’s more in love with the connotations of ‘bad’ than being precise. In the end, it seems like she’s an incomplete feminist – aware of some of her blind spots, but not necessarily ready to remedy them.

There’s a lot to agree with here. I do believe Gay is right when she says that popular culture both promotes and reflects a misogynistic, rape culture. And I do agree with a line that struck me as a useful refrain for this book. We have become careless – with our language, with our choices, with our actions.

That said, some of the reactions I had here were similar to ones when I read something (I’ve blanked on the title) by Chuck Klosterman, maybe Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs. Why would someone with such obvious talent and insight spend so much time on the surface of things? As I said, I think popular culture matters. But these essays lack depth. They seem to be written for the Twitter world Gay professes to admire. Just when she’s approaching a powerful question or contradiction, she stops – abruptly. She regularly tries for the final sentence as exclamation point approach, and she regularly fails. Given the overlap of so many of the essays, what would have happened if she’d dug in a bit deeper? So much of the research seemed based one-click – a news story, a statistic. There’s not much of an attempt to synthesize, well, anything.