This seems to be a tale of two books, one more interesting than the other, if perhaps inconsisten with the title of the collection. In her essay, “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston writes –

I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

It is when Bennet sharpens his oyster knife that his poems, apparently often performed, gain their edge. “Theodicy” (you do not know how to write / what you can’t imagine the end of) is one of my favorites (and is dedicated to Renisha McBride), but it may contain some of the sobbing that Hurston disdained (which obviously doesn’t bother me). “X” is also excellent as is “On Flesh.” “Still Life with Little Brother” is good and its ending is gorgeous.

Please, excuse my shadow. I can’t

stop leaving. I don’t know how

to name what I don’t know

 

well enough to render

in a single sitting. Every poem

about us seem an impossible labor,

 

like forgetting the face

of the sea, or trying to find

a more perfect name for water.

 

I admit it; I judged this book by its cover. I had never read “an epic novel of the Roma.” The blurb said it was “the first novel in which a Gypsy himself depicts his people. .  . with complete authenticity.” I was sold. After all, we read (sometimes) in order to enter other worlds. I knew nothing of the Roma. Here, the cover said to me, is a chance to learn.

Without wasting much time, Lakatos’ work, translated by Ann Major, made me ask myself whether it was okay not to like this ‘authentic’ presentation of the Roma culture. If the way women are treated in this novel is anywhere close to accurate, then yikes.

The novel, by all indications based on the life of the author himself, also raised another cliche – just because it is true doesn’t make it a good story. The novel meanders. Small things are presented as disproportionately huge, with little justification. There is a great deal of repetition and ponderous dialogue. I neither liked nor was much interested in the protagonist. I certainly never accepted his so-called wisdom.

It can be hard to tell with a translation, but there are numerous examples where Lakatos seems to reach for lofty prose and fail miserably, that I have to believe it’s his doing, not Major’s.

There are poignant moments. The ending. The love for horses. But they are too few to sustain 464 pages.

Like others, I think, I’ve paid a great deal of attention to the struggles immigrants face in trying to get here. I’ve even read some about the difficulty that some face getting here, like Enrique’s Journey. But I wanted to understand the “mouth of [the] shark”* that is prompting so many to try to escape Syria. And thanks to Borri, for whom it is very important that she be writing from the heart of the battle, I do. She heaps disdain on those experts (some since discredited) who write about Syria without ever having been in the country. She is told at one point that she could just as easily (and much more safely) write about Syria from Rome. And she admits that journalism is about the right distance and that she may be too close. She also acknowledges that even with Aleppo, it is not possible to understand fully the Syrian experience. She knows she is right, though, that the media, and especially photographers, are key to this story. One girl tells her, “Don’t write useless things.” Another example:

Today is [Ayman Haj Jaaed’s] second day at the front. Write this, he tells me: ‘Assad is at the end of his rope.’ He crosses the street at a run waving his Kalashnikov, shooting as fast as he can. ‘Write, write!’ he yells at me from across the street: ‘Two more months, and Aleppo will be free.’ Only he fired to the left. And the sniper was on his right.

This is in Autumn of 2012. Ayman is 18.

The impression I take away from this book is similar to that moment in Apocalypse Now when the Martin Sheen character asks a soldier who is in charge. The soldier has no idea.  “Who’s the commanding officer here?” “Ain’t you?”

The Syrian situation seems incredibly complex. Most of the rebels are not even Syrian. And there is a great deal of in-fighting among the rebels. No one from the outside knows who to support, especially with Al-Qaeda counting itself among the rebels. In the end, I don’t think Borri blames Obama for not intervening. She has no such forgiveness for NGO’s that don’t show and especially those who collect funds based on a promise they are not fulfilling. It is expensive, Borri reports, to be a refugee.

Borri’s details and insights are as powerful as they are poetic. This is apparently her first book that has been translated into English. I hope the other two find their way into English soon. For the elegance of the language here, at least some of the credit must go to her translator, Anne Milano Appel.

The photographs that inspired Francesca Borri

The White Helmets

The White Helmets: trailer

“Lullaby” (for Dead Syrian Children) by Shalan Alhamwy

from “Home” by Warsan Shire

At times, this book seemed more like an overview of a topic than an argument for any kind of revolution. And Robinson is perhaps a bit too fond of something I’ve noticed in many polished speakers – he reduces things to certain numbers and often uses alliteration (the 5 C’s, for example). Still, there’s much to be learned here, and I was always grateful when Robinson offered the names of other texts to pursue and / or schools / programs to investigate, so I could go into more depth if I wanted to.

It’s hard to imagine at this point who genuinely disagrees with what’s here. I think the two more important questions are how to generate the kind of political will necessary to “scale up” from some of the exemplars Robinson provides and how to manage the transition in the least disruptive way possible.

Ken Robinson’s TED talk

I am kind of a sucker for those newspaper accounts that mark the XX(x)th anniversary of some local event. I’m not sure why – perhaps because there seemed to be so many unanswered questions – I followed up on a story about The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 by ordering this collection of articles. And the event, though not charming as the last writer claims, continues to raise questions, not only about why the train crashed, but about decisions made and not made as well as the impact of the tragedy on the community today. The risk, I suppose (I’m not too experienced with local histories), is that not all of the writing will be good. The only essay that is really a bust here is the last one, full of platitudes, an inappropriate tone, and, because of its placement in the collection, little new information. I look forward to a road trip to Ashtabula in order to see things for myself.

image from train crash

This Anisfield-Wolf award winner is absolutely stunning. From its riveting opening pages until the truth of its conclusion, Mahajan takes us through a stunning story of small bombs, both the ones used by terrorists and the ones encountered in everyday life. I think what’s new here is that Mahajan, as the perfectly designed cover demonstrates, connects the bombs in ways we rarely get access to, let alone appreciate. What’s also new and both bold and necessary is that Mahajan takes us inside the lives of these terrorists. He accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us, if not like them, then at least understand them, both on a personal and political level. It is in these sections that he asks the most difficult and urgent questions, and I hope Anisfield-Wolf plans to host some conversations about this book even before the author arrives. (You must know that sensation of having finished a book and looking around immediately thinking, “Who else has finished it? I must talk to someone about this book. Now!) And please don’t think that Mahajan lets anyone in this story elude his hard questions. There are no angels in India, either.

In my enthusiasm for the content of the book, I don’t want to neglect Mahajan’s writing. He has passages, some as short as a phrase and others as long as several pages, that are just breathtaking in their precision and use of language. Unless I am teaching a novel, I rarely read with a pencil in hand. This time I did and my annotations and exclamation points fill this book.

The only fault with this book is mine. I know so little about India. It is not necessary to have much background knowledge to immerse yourself in this book, but I would love a suggestion of something to read to give me that background knowledge so I can appreciate it on another level when I return to it.

the cover

This is a tremendous and timely play. Though some may see it as a response to current events regarding the police, I think that would be missing the point. It is not only more complicated than that about the police, it is much more nuanced play in general. There are elements on the surface and those underneath.  Rent control, the (mis)use of the ‘n’ word (I don’t want to spoil anything here), the power of belief, race and racism, etc..  And there’s a multi-layered issue about Jewish stereotypes that angered and entangled me. There are also classical elements here – fathers and their children. It comes as no surprise to me that it won the Pulitzer. But when I saw it at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (check out this pretty cool preview), the last two scenes drove me crazy. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I don’t know how you direct these two scenes without revealing a key stage direction. But maybe Guirgis doesn’t want it revealed? At Steppenwolf, the ending came off as kind of dream-like. Is that the goal? If so, then the previous scene seems not to work. We’ll see what happens Cleveland Playhouse’s upcoming production.