Archives for posts with tag: book review

I was in a bookstore and was struck by a title – If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler – and I opened it. The first line is something like, “You are probably in a bookstore right now.” I laughed. Out loud. And I bought the book.

It was a revelation. It was my first experience with meta-fiction, long before I even had any idea what that term meant. I loved it.

I’ve since read a few other Calvino titles. He, like Saramago, takes a certain kind of concentration. Invisible Cities is another delight. Esoteric and layered, it is a series of reports from Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about cities Polo has encountered in his journeys through Khan’s empire. Maybe.

Or is it a kind of Arabian Nights tale, in which Polo is making up these reports to present to a ruler who fears the slow destruction of his empire, in a language of gestures and words so insufficient that the two men spend a great deal of time in silence. Maybe.

Or is it a criticism and / or a celebration of the dichotomous nature of cities, of which, like and despite words, we can only ever gain a temporary understanding?

I’m not sure; I’m glad it’s a book club choice. I’ll be eager to hear what others offer.

Teju Cole is, I think, as close to a Renaissance man as I know. The range of allusions in this large collection of short essays is staggering. Naturally, the range of topics is equally wide, focusing (pun intended) on photography. If you know his novel Open City, it will not surprise you to learn that the essays are lyrical, non-linear, observational and insightful. They are, in far too many cases, too short. I know that at least some were lifted from elsewhere. I wish that he’d chosen fewer to include and expanded those that made the cut. The pieces on photography were challenging for me since I don’t really speak that language, and he is only able to include a few of the images in the book itself. I enjoyed the sense of humor that sneaks into a few of these pieces, and I liked traveling with Cole to the places he visits. He is a master at using words to make pictures.

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 knew very little about Rustin going into this biography other than a decision had been made to not have him as the face of the March on Washington because he was gay. But there was so much more for me to learn. It was really interesting to discover the evolution of Rustin’s thinking, from his early days as a pacifist to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to his recognition of what I think we’d call intersectionality today – the recognition that racial justice and economic justice (for example) are linked. Near the end of his life, he even became involved in the gay rights movement.

Though D’Emilio is clear that some of Rustin’s behavior was reckless, it was also enlightening to see how others (and by others, I mean the likes of Martin Luther King and A. Philip Randolph) reacted to his homosexuality and to his evolving thoughts, interests and passions. King, Randolph and Roy Wilkins do not always come off well here; they do come off as human, which is good.

This is a good, informative book – well-researched (without being overt about it) and illuminating. It just lacked a kind of narrative drive. Rustin was at the center of some tense and exciting moments of history, and D’Emilio is never really able to get the reader to feel the urgency of those times.

I’m glad I read it. I knew, as I said, very little about Rustin (perhaps that’s what D’Emilio means by using ‘Lost’ in the title), and I certainly know more now. It was just a bit harder to get through than I wanted it to be.

Initially, many of these poems, most of them ekphrastic (see, for example, Enlightenment), felt fragile. Perfectly constructed, but not ones I could find my way into. There were no lines that stood out; everything depended on everything else.

Slowly, as I begin to get some sense of the rhythm of the pieces and recurring motifs started to appear (her father, being mixed race, etc.), I found them more accessible and those poems opened up the whole collection for me. For example, from “The Book of Castas,” on being of mixed race:

what do  you call // that space between / the dark geographies of sex? // Call it the taint – as in / T’aint one and t’aint the other – // illicit and yet naming still / what is between.

I’m not doing Trethewey’s spacing justice, but you can see how those lines would have to be unpacked carefully. The same is true for the whole collection.

If you infer a religious motif from the number 7, you are right. There’s a plot twist here, too, but I don’t want to spoil it, other than to say Myla Goldberg did it better in Bee Season. And that wasn’t the only time I wondered about Pearsall’s, ahem, influences.

The characters are pretty much cardboard, and the plot is fairly predictable.

And I sincerely regret Pearsall’s use of the “magical Negro” character, so ably spoofed by Key & Peele here, even if it was based on an actual artwork and artist.

I enjoyed Pearsall’s, All of the Above, but this one – not so much.

Pearsall’s site

Some poetry books are collections; this one is a book. Odum’s versatility is amazing. Whether the poems are vulnerable, as in “For Straight Men with Bi Friends Pt. 3” and “Suicide,” or more direct, as in “Lessons” and “Redshift,” the intensity and insight are always present. “Masculinity be like. . .” is a master class, and a poem I will use with my students. “Poplar Tree” is a worthy companion of “Strange Fruit” and also worth closer examination.

There’s a lot of wisdom here. You’ll read this one with a pencil in hand and want to punch the page often when you find things that are true. I’ve heard Mr. Odum read a few of these out loud; that’s the only thing better than reading them yourself.

Odum’s website