Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Hardcover, 273 pages Published April 28th 2009 by Doubleday, ISBN13: 9780385527651, Lit Awards: PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Nominee (2010), Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Nominee for Fiction (2010)

The first time I read this book shortly after publication in 2009 I didn’t like anything about it. I didn’t understand Whitehead’s air of casual privilege. I reread it at the end of 2017 because a review by Brandon Harris in the New York Review of Books (Dec 7, 2017) about James McBride’s new collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul, mentions Sag Harbor as “ravishing.” What did I miss?

The short answer is that I missed everything. But without going back to interrogate that 9-year-ago self, I can’t be sure I didn’t just miss, but dismiss this gorgeously-written growing-up summer reminiscent of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Whitehead surely didn’t have a white girl in mind as his target audience: he spoke to other young boys in a dangerous world who are uncertain, black, and soon-to-be men. This white girl gets to listen in.

This second time I listened to Mirron Willis read the novel and he gave it the voice I needed for comprehension. And yes, I do get it now. That mid-1980’s summer on Long Island gave a look into a boy’s mind, how he thought, what concerned him most, the dangers that lurked at the edges of his testosterone-soaked consciousness. Even his obliviousness to moves made by the few age-appropriate girls in his cohort rang true. Often boys look poleaxed at that age—fifteen—they are thinking of other things while their body is reacting.

What jerked me aware of my whiteness this time was the jokey nature of the not-quite-ready-for-the-world half-man Benji talking about the radio spot his father listened to about the shootings happening regularly and constantly, the shootings of black men, or women, dropped into the news like yesterday’s weather. All of a sudden I was willing to concede that his reality had real, unreasonable, and unexpected death in it, not mine, and I should shut my mouth and listen up.

Once I gave him the reins, I could see and hear the way language was being used, see how capable that boy was of capturing a mood or the attitudes of his friends, his family. When BB guns crop up in the story, they immediately register as danger, despite the innocence all parties have exhibited to now. A group of teen boys testing the puncture power of BB shot from close range…it sets the blood pulsing and the mind reeling. A sense of danger is here to stay.

A short section near the end telling of Benji’s exciting and mysterious older sister Elena is filled with a barely acknowledged yearning for connection so poignant our hearts break asunder. Benji’s discussion of his parents’ marriage, and the father’s oppressive attitudes towards his wife and children, explains an avoidance in the family dynamic with an authenticity that can’t be faked. Benji’s mother “disappeared, word by word” when his father became verbally abusive, and the sense of propriety Benji had developed somewhere led him to close all the windows in the warm house in an attempt to keep the parents' raised voices hidden from the neighborhood. That sense of shame is a just a shuttercock instant in a boy's life: a few years earlier, the youngster would not feel he had the agency, a few years later, he would realize this happens in every marriage.

Some set scenes may challenge our credulousness, though anyone who has lived with a teenaged male may well be taken in: the pot of writhing maggots, the killing of houseflies with a rubber band, the first open-eyed open-mouthed kiss of a girl—all these elements of a parentless summer by the beach ring so true we feel the grit of wind-blown sand between our teeth. The beginning of the last chapter has some of the most beautiful writing I have seen anywhere, about the passage of time and reaching the end… of summer, of youth, of innocence, and somehow more than all that.

This wonderful fiction deserves all the accolades it got at the time, and it makes me curious to try another of Whitehead’s novels, especially the science fiction. I will look at Underground… again, for my own benefit, but I may owe him an apology for a review that did not acknowledge that however he wants to write about his understanding of slavery is a perspective that I have nothing to say about.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by Roland Glasser

Paperback, 210 pgs, Pub Sept 2015 by Scribe Publications (first pub Aug 21st 2014), ISBN139781925106947, Lit Awards: Internationaler Literaturpreis – Haus der Kulturen der Welt Nominee for Lena Müller (2017), BTBA Best Translated Book Award Nominee for Fiction Longlist (2016), Man Booker International Prize Nominee for Longlist (2016), Etisalat Prize (2015).

If exuberance were key to great literature, this book would rank. This manic deluge takes the Western notion of a novel and puts it on a train out of town. One day it may circle back, or we may catch up with it, but we will all be changed by the journey. This is literature self-consciously desperate to join the club but having no earthly way to reconcile a reality crazier than fiction.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been sadly underrepresented when it comes to literature, but not because the outside world is not interested. What we see is how complicated it all is, how slim the chances are that anyone would be able to thrash through the thicket that is daily life in the Congo, and manage to capture the moment on paper. Whoever manages it will have a different kind of voice, with a different center of balance.

This is train literature, the protagonist Lucien exclaims,
“locomotive literature….my writing displays similarities with the railroads that depart from the station that is essentially an unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks and locomotives that call to mind the railroad built by Stanley….Anyway, I’ve had a weakness for railroads for a while now. I sought man, I found train. (Laughter)”
There is something to the random voices of the bar girls (“Do you have the time?”), the circular nature of daily routine, the powering through despite the distractions…a more unlikely place to find a serious writer of political plays can hardly be found. And yet, Lucien runs into a publisher in the bar who, over time, adds to the general hilarity and nonsense by asking Lucien for short pieces on random subjects unrelated to Lucien’s opus, a political stage-tale with the title: The Africa of Possibility: Lumumba, the Fall of an Angel, or the Pestle-Mortar Years.

“Characters include Che Guevara, Sékou Touré, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Lumumba, Martin Luther King, Ceaușescu, not forgetting the dissident General.”
But the dissolution is not restricted to the government, as Lucien’s description of Tram 83 includes the panty-less baby-chicks, the single-mamas, the ageless-women, the wild, endless search for the conflict minerals of gold, diamonds, cobalt…”this dung elevated to a raw material,” the search continuing even under the floor of one’s own shack. Lust for the vast, unrivaled mineral wealth of the country affects everyone, but the return on those minerals is nowhere to be seen except in the nighttime exchanges in Tram 83 where everything is for sale. “Do you have the time?” Heart of Darkness, indeed.

The loco-motive nature of the novel at first runs us over. As we grab hold, it drags us behind it. It is only when we are able to climb aboard, for me after the second reading…the second drink, as it were….that the previously unimagined riches of this debut novel begin to reveal themselves. The translator is to be commended for keeping pace and not succumbing to despair or overload. The Democratic Republic of Congo. We’ve heard the stories; we've read the history. Now see the literature.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

What's So Funny About Faith: A Memoir from the Intersection of Hilarious and Holy by Jacob D. Martin

Paperback, 162 pgs, Pub Oct 1st 2012 by Loyola Press, ISBN13: 9780829437393

A couple of weeks ago I finished Barking to the Choir by Greg Boyle, S.J. Boyle’s writing about his ministry in Los Angeles was both deeply aware of the human condition and deeply funny. His humor made us want to examine our own experience for other instances of the kind of vulnerability and human error that make life poignant rather than tragic. Father Boyle mentioned in passing that he decided to become a Jesuit because he found the order socially relevant and really funny. My father was educated by Jesuits, and his admirers always said his humor was Jesuitical: thoughtful and complex. So I went looking for Jesuits and humor and found Jake Martin.

This book was published in 2012, and tells of Jake’s Irish Catholic upbringing, the death of his father when he was young, his fabulously funny females on his mother’s side. Jake watched a lot of television growing up, and, coming from a family of wise-cracking females, he learned early the value of making people laugh. He is able to discuss particular episodes in long-running comedy TV series, which is pretty much lost on me since I never watched more than one or two episodes of any series. More importantly then, Jake seems to have internalized what makes good comedy socially relevant and long-lasting, besides being merely funny. He just touches on this vastly interesting subject area and therefore makes one want to learn more about what comedy is.

Becoming a Jesuit may not seem like much a career path for a boy whose greatest goal was to appear on Saturday Night Live, but actually it would make a brilliant synergy if he could make it work. I saw a short YouTube video of Jake talking about his decision to go into the Jesuits and I was surprised. He seemed much more uncomfortable speaking in front of an audience than I was expecting. All the hand-waving and the aw-shucks unpracticed responses were at odds with the stuff he’d written in this book which seemed to indicate a man who’d reconciled with his earlier bad habits as an ordinary citizen and was looking deeper into the mysteries of both successful comedy and his faith. He seems on solid ground with the theory; why is he uncomfortable in practice and on stage?

He wasn’t funny in the book, but he stoked our interest in finding something funny about faith, about God’s will on earth, and in human vulnerability and striving. I made it hard for him because I opened the book randomly and expected him to land immediately. It actually worked…I continued reading, perplexed at his seeming gentleness and naiveté. Somehow the link between comedy and gentleness has been broken for me. It would surprise me if he could hold his own among the troupe at Second City, a famous improv comedy spot in Chicago where he began his comedic education on stage. Second City was the start for many stars we watch on national television today, so Martin is well-connected in that way.

I hope he can pull it off eventually, if he is just getting started now (actually, five years ago this book was published & we haven't heard of him yet). At least he appears to understand what a big canvas he has and what a huge number of examples he has of everyday ridiculousness.

Just to give you a sense of what I am saying. Please form your own opinions.

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Waking Up White by Debby Irving

Paperback, 273 pgs, Pub Jan 9th 2014 by Elephant Room Press, ISBN13: 9780991331307, Lit Award: Next Generation Indie Book Awards Nominee for Current Events/Social Change (2015)

Until a couple of years ago I didn’t really think about race. I didn’t have to, being part of the majority white population of the United States. When I realized that without my attention we were not managing race well in this country, e.g., the shootings of unarmed black men moving away from the shooters, I realized I needed to understand what the heck was being perpetrated upon the non-white population in the name of my safety.

This book is written by a woman who experienced a similar kind of epiphany. Irving grew up wealthy in a suburb of Boston, “the most racist city in America,” according to SNL comedian Michael Che. She’d never confronted the fact that white was a race, too. I had, having lived some years in a non-white majority country, but even I had trouble defining what white meant in America. When I heard a joke about “the whitest thing I’ve ever done,” I started wondering what that would be, and why.

The point is that we all have something to learn about race, no matter the stage of our awakening. One takeaway from Irvings’s lessons was that race is always on the mind of minorities and part of their conversations with one another, but is rarely spoken of in white households. White households may even hold back when their attention is drawn to race, thinking it is rude to speak of it. They claim to be ‘colorblind,’ or ‘do not see race.’

It turns out minorities would prefer you do see race. Because it’s there, and because it is affecting them. We’re actually not all the same. We may have similar aspirations and dreams as humans, but we do not share the same backstory, home lives, food, cultural habits, etc. We’re different, and we need to accommodate differences of opinion and direction in our towns and cities, schools and public facilities.

Irving raises the idea of America’s ‘melting pot.’ It is a concept we need to look at again as our population changes, and speak about with our neighbors, and our government. What does that really mean, and is it good? Or can retaining some diversity of thought and culture make us stronger, better, wider in outlook?

Irving talks about diversity workshops she’s attended and ones she’s organized in Boston. She shares her learning from these sessions, and warns us that people of color are very tired of educating white people about racial sensitivity and fairness. They want white people to do what they have had to do their entire lives: catch up. And that means putting in the time to educate oneself through reading, listening, workshops, and classes if necessary. We may then recognize and work to eliminate racism in ourselves or in others.

The thing is, when we explore race together, we are gong to make mistakes. We are leaving our comfort zone. The first time we speak a foreign language with a native speaker captures some of the discomfort we will feel. It can be humiliating, our errors. If the journey is undertaken with real intent and a proper degree of acceptance of our own abilities and limitations, we will often experience breakthrough and native speakers may find themselves willing to help.

If this book at times sounded like a primer for every generalization ever made about race, it is still helpful for that. Wherever you are in your understanding of race you will find something here to learn. Irving’s frankness helps to clarify areas about which we were curious but unless we have friends of color, we had no one to ask. It looks at ways we can learn to feel more comfortable with color, speak of it, benefit from the diversity of it, but also how to face our own fallibility.
“I’ve come to feel that the straightforward airing of experiences and beliefs is a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, pathway to interpersonal and intercultural understanding and healing. Intimate human connection and enduring trust are the rewards of courageous conversation. The trick for me has been learning to stay in the conversation long enough to get to the other side, where niceness gives way to authenticity, understanding, and trust, the ingredients necessary for social stability.”
I will try to stay in the conversation long enough, and I hope black citizens also stay in the conversation. I understand the exhaustion, truly. So you don’t have to answer whites all by yourself, and maybe not every time it comes up. But if we’re going to get through this, we’re gonna have to engage. Maybe if whites come at least halfway it won’t be so bad.

Irving’s journey was kind of inspiring, and makes me want to try something like that in my own town. I also live in a suburb of Boston and only in the past two to three years have people of color moved into our neighborhoods. I‘d like to know why it took so long, and I’d like to make some new friends. It is a change too long in coming.
“If there’s a place for tolerance in racial healing, perhaps if has to do with tolerating my own feelings of discomfort that arise when a person, of any color, expresses an emotion not welcome in the culture of niceness. It also has to do with tolerating my own feelings of shame, humiliation, regret, anger, and fear so I can engage, not run. For me, tolerance is not about others; it’s about accepting my own uncomfortable emotions as I adjust to a changing view of myself as imperfect and vulnerable. As human.”
Below please find Debby Irving's YouTube TEDxFenway video (about 15 minutes):

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

Paperback, 150 pgs, Pub May 30th 2017 by Penguin Books (first pub Oct 20th 2016) ISBN13: 9780143131656

Until a friend recently pointed him out, I’d never heard of Grayson Perry. I have since looked at his artwork online and am as impressed over his painting and his clothing choices as anyone would be. They are quite…wildly spectacular and suggestive…of a world where sexuality is a choice.

Somehow, despite Perry telling us that he experienced and acted out of a deep well of rage in his youth, we feel comfortable with him telling us what he thinks we’re misunderstanding about sexuality and gender disparity. Perry calls himself a transvestite, and I guess we’ll have to accept his definition of that. He doesn’t go into detail (thank goodness) but he does mention his wife in this work and she is female, so far as I can tell.

Whatever. This book is an amusing and non-judgmental look at masculinity and the effect it has had on the female sex psychologically and every other way. Perry makes some really funny and caustic observations on his way to telling men they can let down their compulsion to carry the world on their shoulders. Half the world is ready to take up their share of the burden, and, oh by the way, you can get yourselves some better clothes while you’re at it. Something pastel, perhaps?
“Actors, when they are preparing for a role, often talk of the clothes as key…So, in the great gender debate, maybe clothes are one of the key drivers of change…If we want to transform what men can be, maybe central to their performance will be a costume change.”
Much of what Perry writes in this book is what women have been saying for some time, so I never felt uncomfortable or surprised by his ideas. However, Perry had a unique set of questions I’d never seen raised before, like
“I asked a men’s group what women may not know about men. What came up was just how attracted to risk men are. These were middle-aged, middle-class men in therapy, yet they all had tales to tell of reckless driving, drug taking, sex and violence, and they told them with relish. In all-male company, risk is a shared enthusiasm.”
Perry goes on to say that if the popular notion of masculinity is in need of an update, who better to figure it out than concerned groups of men? But ‘the men’s movement’ tends to lay the blame at the feet of women, whereas if traditional working-class men feel left on the rust heap, they would be better served to look at the sexist patriarchy—the very thing feminists are attacking—rather than women and feminism.
“…Men are their own worst enemy.”
In a chapter entitled “The Shell of Masculinity,” Perry explains that in childhood men aren’t given the tools they need to be expressive of their needs and feelings, and this can hamper their development later in life and in relationships. I think this is pretty much received knowledge, and knowing it means we need to have mothers and fathers prepare their sons for a world that is fundamentally changed, more rewarding of introspection and insight into one’s own behavior rather than the dog-eat-dog, first-man-to-the-top-of-the-heap-no-matter-the-human-cost attitudes we had been rewarding.

Another thing Perry tells us is that for many men,
“sex boils and ferments below a crust of civility. The comedian Phill Jupitus describes masturbation as the ‘male screen saver.’ If a man is not concentrating on something, his brain goes into sleep mode and sex swims into his awareness. [I particularly like this analogy.] Instead of a view of Yosemite Valley or a swirling universe, a back catalog of diary porn shuffles across his mind screen, and the desire to jerk off takes over.”
My sympathies entirely, gentlemen. What effort you must expend to keep from reaching over and putting your hand up the skirt of the nearest babe. I’d no idea what you were wrestling with, and yet…friends of mine do not report such overwhelming urges that they cannot keep themselves well under control.

Perry moves from this discussion to “a strong component of masculinity is nostalgia.” This piques my interest because I have noticed that definitely among the men I have known. Mothers are so practical and utilitarian and not so backward-looking, in my experience. Perry suggests our sex drive is always on the hunt…for the past, for our childhoods. The emotions we attach to our sex lives,
“the power plays and dramatic roles we act out in our sex lives, we learn as children…The scripts of our sexual fantasies are usually roughed out by our experiences as children. [Including fetishes.]”
Perry has spent so long in therapy he has really talked out among men many of the things people discuss when they talk about gender equality. And yet, he says, gender “difference and an imbalance of power are big components of what turns us all on, not just the kinky ones.” From here Perry notes fetishes often have a distinctly nostalgic flavor, and sexual nostalgia may be the reason men are hanging on to old stereotypes. What turns them on is sexually and politically out of date.

This is something I’ve never heard articulated in quite this way before, though I have seen it manifest often. It seems a worthwhile avenue of exploration.

In his final chapter, Perry reminds men that they can lay down the burden of holding up the world, and they are allowed to declare a few things; for instance, men have “The Right to be Wrong,” and “The Right Not to Know,” and maybe most important, “The Right to be Weak.” Yes, this is the part where we can all enjoy the power imbalance for a little while at least, pulling out those sexual fantasies for something entirely novel…

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Hardcover, 512 pgs, Pub Mar 7th 2017 by Other Press (first published 2016) Orig Title: Störst av allt ISBN 1590518578 (ISBN13: 9781590518571) Awards: Glass Key Award (2017), Best Swedish Crime Novel

There is a reason this Swedish novel rocketed to the top of Europe’s bestseller lists. It has everything—enormous wealth, inequality, immigration, teenage angst, drugs, sex, and death—but it also has whip-smart writing, the constraints of law, the quiet and unbreakable bonds of family. Entirely suitable for teens, this is a YA title worthy of the designation.

Told from the point of view of a young woman just out of high school, this story recounts how Maja awaited her trial on school shooting and multiple murder charges. Maja herself is silent. We only hear the voice inside her head. It is a legal thriller easily as good as America’s Scott Turow, John Grisham, Marcia Clark at the height of their powers.

Headlines scream
We are inside the jail, inside Maja’s confused thoughts as she contemplates her imprisonment, and remembers moments in her past which illuminate her present. Readers are skeptical of any reason which seeks absolution for such a heinous crime. Maja’s lawyer is one of the most famous in Sweden, taking unpopular, unwinnable cases. Our emotions seesaw between a kind of sympathy for an ordinary teen and the extraordinary circumstances of her imprisonment.

We wrestle with big issues like the statement that “the truth is whatever we choose to believe,” and “innocence until proven guilty.” And the voice of Maja is piquant and high-school observant:
“…not a single person has ever believed that Mom is the person she pretends to be. But she keeps pretending anyway. And for the most part, people are polite about it and leave her alone…Dad’s money is hardly even fifteen minutes old. And he doesn’t have enough of it to compensate…he thinks boarding school taught him what it takes to fit in, what he has to do for high-class people to think he's one of them. He’s wrong, of course.”
We are talking about the rich and the ultra rich. That in itself is an interesting perspective on high school life in Sweden: yacht trips in the Mediterranean, weekend jaunts to southern islands, parties that bring in musicians and YouTube specialists from America, multiple homes, corporate planes…you get the picture. But there is also an immigrant community in the town and the wealth discrepancy is radical. We have so many dichotomies examined in this novel between parents & youth, wealth & the lack of it, light & dark skins to name a few.

But what is best about this drama are the legal arguments. First we hear the prosecutor do her best to lay out the case against the defendant. That, and the newspapers give the court of public opinion plenty to work with until the defense can present a few counter-arguments in the weeks that follow. In the defense, we get a careful step-by-step unpicking of the prosecutor’s almost airtight case for murder. It is masterful.

Maja is uniquely well-off and privileged, but is she uniquely evil? Statistically, one could argue it is unlikely. But so much more is uncovered in the course of the trial that we cannot break away. What would cause a well-educated woman of privilege to behave in this way?

Giolito places an articulate corporate American PhD and editor-in-chief of a prestigious business publication in the position of giving a talk before the high school Maja attends, and she explicates the argument America is undergoing right now, played out by our political parties wrangling over tax policy.
“We must be cautious about the social contract. Both parties must uphold their side of the agreement. We must have comprehensible equity. It is not fair if the welfare system is bankrolled by low- and middle-income earners. If large corporations pay less in taxes than their small- and medium-size colleagues, that is not what the social contract looks like…”
I don’t want to take the fun out of this spectacular book for you. Academics, teachers, high school students, lawyers, ordinary citizens will all find this beautifully-written and -translated novel a page-turner.

This is Malin Persson Giolito’s English language debut. Let’s show her American gratitude and support so we can get all her novels published here. Giolito has worked as a lawyer and for the European Commission in Brussels, where she lives with her husband and three daughters. She has entered the ranks of the best legal thriller writers working today. The translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles is exceptional. Published by Other Press.

An excellent interview explains the backstory behind this book.

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Something for Christmas by Palmer Brown

Hardcover, 40 pgs, Pub Sept 20th 2011 by NYR Children's Collection (first pub 1958) ISBN13: 9781590174623

The New York Review of Books has republished the Palmer Brown books that many people say they have never forgotten, having read them in childhood, 45 long years ago. The reprints are child-sized, about 4" x 6" and have lovely reproductions of the artwork that makes this collection so special.

In this story, a baby mouse wonders aloud over what she should get for Christmas for someone special (her mother) who seems to have everything. All kinds of things are considered until the mother helps her decide that to give one's love is the most precious gift of all.

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We're Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

Hardcover, 272 pgs, Pub Oct 17th 2017 by Dey Street Books, ISBN13: 9780062693983

Celebrity memoirs are a special breed of animal. Considering how much speculation goes on around celebrity lives in the tabloids, it must be nice to be able to steer the conversation, and admit or deny things of which they have been accused. Gabriela Union keeps it lively; to my sensibility she appears fearless. Forty-five years old now, I suppose it is not too early for her to tell all. She is happily married, her work is widely admired and keeps her in demand, and she has figured out there is little time for regret.

But I probably wouldn’t have been so explicit about the sex. I don’t really care who she decides to sleep with, but even if one is a celebrity, one is not required to explain one's sexual preferences or positions. Why is her experience with multiple partners so different from that of other people? I didn't understand that part. Union writes about growing up in a white culture in California, and it may be the California part, or the celebrity part, or the movie part that feels distant to me. I’ll take her word for it what she describes is white California culture. It could be another universe from a strict white New England Yankee upbringing. White can’t be the operative word here. It’s something else.

The movie industry in California is all about appearances so it shouldn’t surprise me to find someone in the industry concerned with appearances. The discussion about hair is just interesting. As high school students we all obsessed about hair, but because Union is in the movies, she needs to continue to think about this stuff.

I’m just gonna state for the record that I would not put all that effort into hair, acting a role aside. I like black hair. I like the hair of NYTimes analyst and reporter Yamiche Alcindor. She wears it natural. It is interesting and it changes day to day, depending on humidity, I guess. It’s sculptural, and is a relief among Washington people who primp to excess. And yeah, it looks touchable. Isn’t that what guys always said they liked?

What Union does really well in this memoir is show us how minority actors are treated in majority white culture, how overlooked their talents often are, and how so few film companies are interested in minority stories or leading roles. This seems such a big mistake to me…is it really true the great films featuring black or other minority actors in major roles don't recoup their investments? I find that difficult to believe, frankly.

The other thing Union does really well is demonstrate that no matter how famous a black person is, they are treated differently by the public and by law enforcement. She explains that buying a house in a fancy neighborhood may invite more scrutiny and suspicion, and even going for a walk in one’s own neighborhood is not as straightforward as it should be. The American dream is nothing without the presumption of innocence.

I haven’t seen enough films with black leads. I remember Union’s performance in Bring It On as being exceptional, considering…everything about that film. I’d like to see her in more things. I’d also like to see again a female lead I saw in a Turkish soap opera once. I want to see the great actors no matter what color they are or what language they speak. It is pitiful that they don't have the same opportunity to develop their talent as do the least talented white actors.

There are some harrowing experiences in this book that Union is willing to share. I suppose when one’s life is under a microscope all the time with fans, one becomes accustomed to sharing with the world. She is generous.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Beneath the Bonfire: Stories by Nickolas Butler

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub May 5th 2015 by Thomas Dunne Books (first pub Oct 9th 2014, ISBN13: 9781250039835

Why do writers write? Is it to tell the world what they’re thinking or is it to try to experience the world through someone else’s eyes?

Butler has facility with a phrase; he is a literary writer. In “Sven & Lily,” one of my favorite stories that comes early in the collection, Butler writes
“Sven entered the bar first, ducking under the low doorway, me following behind him like an early-afternoon shadow smaller than its maker.”
That story tells of a deep and wide generosity between two men that resulted in them beating each other to a pulp, all in the name of friendship. Alcohol was involved.

In the title story, a returned soldier terrifies his girlfriend when he tries to jumpstart his own sense of giving-a-shit. In “Morels,” three men who attended high school together have a deep connection that for them turns wrong into right. All these stories feature the mysterious inner feelings of men unaccustomed to speaking what they feel, a phenomenon common to the bars and dives of midwestern states. It’s not limited to the masculine, though this book is.

In “Sweet Light Crude,” an oil executive is kidnapped and told he must drink his own drilled oil before he will be let go. Butler manages to make both men sympathetic, defiant, and brave.

Another favorite story, “In Western Counties,” has a woman in it: a woman with agency. She is a cop with long red hair and she is close to retirement. She knows a thing or two from her time on the force, but she feels her skills slipping away, every week a new indignity of forgetting. But she still knows how to shoot and she knows how to be kind. Those things she did not forget.

Truth be told, by the last two stories of this collection, I was reading long past lunchtime, the space I had allotted myself in the middle of the day to read. I understood the attraction of long-legged black-haired Sunny in “Train People Drive Slow” in a visceral way. She was dangerous--sexy and lethal--with a radioactive aura. Some men prefer to die of radiation.

Wisconsin. That’s where they were when he caught the fifty-pound common carp in the river filled with gravel, junked cars, and “old I beams laying around like pickup sticks from some other, more brutal time.” But he survived, nicked & scarred.

Yes, this is a collection that one reads on and on, much longer and later than one intended. But the last story, “Apples,” tells us what we needed to know. What on earth do we do with all the apples?

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Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub Mar 9th 2010 by Free Press (first pub March 9th 2009) ISBN13: 9781439153024 Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Nonfiction, Debut Author (2010)

It could be the thing I like best about Boyle’s stories are the changes made to one word of common phrases so that the meanings come up again, fresh and clear and relatable, like “wash your iniquities,” or “I hear your cancer’s in intermission.”

The other thing I enjoy Father Boyle’s work for is to hear how he takes the thoughts and work of others to meditate on. In this book he quotes the poet Mary Oliver many times, Rumi, Mother Teresa, Pema Chödrön, among others. There is always something interesting in what those leaders of thought say, and also in how Father Boyle chooses to apply their lessons to his daily life and ministry.

And let’s put this in perspective. I am not a religious person, having become inured to such teachings in Catholic schools—how did they manage to strip the joy and beauty out of love, for cripes’ sake? And then, of course, the scandal that enveloped the Catholic Church, revealing even ordained ministers to be hypocrites…

Since then I just try to pay attention. When goodness appears in our daily life, what happens? When evil appears, what happens? How to deal with evil? How to consider the bad things people do? How to love the people who do these bad things? Father Boyle gives us his answers to these questions. He’s interesting, and he seems to be able to transform bad attitudes into good ones.

He has written only two books, both of which are wonderful to read, but are also good texts for meditation, since his writing style are short…parables, really. Boyle has a M.A. in English, and his ability to write may reflect his interest in reading. But take for example, his paraphrase of Mother Teresa:
“We’ve just forgotten that we belong to each other.”
You can put that at the beginning of a tale or at the end. It says it all.

This book was written some years ago and I am reviewing it in 2017, when I discovered it. It turns out Sarah Silverman interviewed Father Greg Boyle in Nov 2017 shortly after his second book, Barking to the Choir was published. Her questions ask this important religious leader how we are supposed to deal with someone who does wrong, but on a spectacularly large scale...not a homeboy, but a Trump? Father Boyle has been ill some time, suffering from leukemia, so all of us who know of his work are eager to hear how he would respond.

Sarah Silverman's interview with Father Boyle comes at the end of her piece (start 15:33).

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Friday, December 8, 2017

George & Lizzie by Nancy Pearl

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub September 5th 2017 by Touchstone, ISBN13: 9781501162893

Nancy Pearl may just be a natural-born writer, though she is best known for her role as bookseller, librarian, interviewer, reviewer, and motivational speaker on the pleasure and importance of reading. In a DIY MFA podcast interview with Gabriela Pereira in September 2017, she tells us that she was merely an instrument for the characters she channels in her debut novel. Her characters feel real to us as well.

Pearl reminds us that reading outside our comfort zone can be a fruitful experience, and her debut novel challenged me—hard—in its first pages. She introduces a self-destructive character so hard to love that we draw back, judging that character without understanding. I had to put the book aside, perplexed, wondering why Pearl would risk her hard-won reputation with such an unsavory character. Months later, I was still curious when I picked up the book again. I read it through nonstop and loved what she was able to do.

In the interview linked to above, Pearl discusses the importance of mood when reading. My second look at this novel is testament to her notion that mood matters with our acceptance of certain ideas. After I had already internalized the behaviors of her difficult character, I allowed Pearl’s writing to guide me. Her writing is so skilled it is almost invisible, though there were several times during this reading when I pulled out of the novel and shook my head in awe at her fluency and execution.

This novel is character-driven. Lizzie does something truly objectionable her last year in high school, designed to hurt herself, her parents, her friends, her ‘victims,’ indeed, everyone who learns of her behavior. Her need for love is so desperate that she denies it, derides it, disguises it. Her parents were difficult academics, and were probably completely to blame for their daughter’s alienation, but blame is not a worthwhile game to play. One still has to grow up, whatever hand one is dealt, and Lizzie had a hard time of it.

Later, her husband George would tell her in exasperation that she “had the emotional maturity of a three-year-old.” This story, then, is Lizzie's emotional journey, through school, boyfriends, and marriage, all the while holding onto her rage and disappointment from childhood. Many of us do this; we never really mature. Lizzie was blessed that the man she married was an even-tempered adult who loved her, and she had close friends who loved her as well. When one is loved, one generally tries not to disappoint those people, lest they turn their love away. We watch as Lizzie learns what that means—what it means to grow up.

I ended up putting everything else aside while I read this in a huge gulp, over two days, riveted to the unfolding story. I really appreciate what Pearl did with the character of George, who would be a grace note in anyone’s life, including readers’, because he seems to understand the really big lesson all of us must learn to get any measure of happiness and satisfaction from life. One can’t have all one wants in terms of love, jobs, recognition, or pay, so how can one be happy? The way one deals with failure will determine one’s future. It’s not the failure that’s important. It’s what comes after that. His lessons feel like gifts.

Poetry plays a key role in this novel, to describe a person’s conclusion, or to underline an observation. The poem at the beginning of this novel by Terence Winch, “The Bells are Ringing for Me and Chagall,” in retrospect gives the reader a very good idea of the direction of this novel, though one cannot see that at the start. The poem at the end is a paean to a long-lasting well-maintained relationship which may sustain one in times of terrible crushing sorrow. We may think we want fast and flashy cars, but reliability may save us.

There is a lot of lived experience in this novel. Pearl is in her seventies now, having done it all when it comes to literature, and now she has written a novel herself. What a brave act. Writing a novel is difficult when one is unknown. It must be terrifying to put something out there when one is well known. All that reading stood her in good stead, however. Her writing is gorgeous, clear and propulsive, and the tricks she uses to ensnare our interest—lots of conversation, poetry, lists, word games, memories—work beautifully.

I especially liked the unique structure of this novel. There are no chapters per se, but short sections that suit a remembered story. The sections have titles, in which she tells us what comes next. And what comes next, I hope, is another novel in which lifetime lessons are revealed. Thank you Nancy Pearl.

NPR's Nancy Pearl discusses her debut:

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men & Women in the 21st C by Stephen Marche

Hardcover, 241 pgs, Pub April 1st 2017 by Simon & Schuster, ISBN13: 9781476780153

The cavalcade of sexual harassment accusations beginning with the Weinstein revelations brought the writing of Stephen Marche to my attention. In an op-ed piece published in the NYT (Nov 25, 2017), Marche asks us to confront “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido.” “The men I know,” he writes, “don’t actively discuss changing sexual norms…Men just aren’t interested. They don’t know where to start.”

If anything were designed to intrigue me, it would be this conundrum: that men cannot or will not or are not interested in fruitfully engaging on anything about gender roles except where to stick it. Marche makes reference to the fact that of all the people who interviewed him about his new book this year, The Unmade Bed, only a minuscule number were men.

“A healthy sexual existence requires a continuing education,” he writes. I am remiss here, only discovering upon reading his work recent studies which determine that gender can only really be defined on a spectrum. I hadn’t realized this was accepted thought, or becoming so (though GR friends have told me before). I haven’t kept up with my continuing ed in this field, including the apparently widely quoted study result
“that men who do housework have less sex than men who don’t, and men who do more traditional ‘work around the house,’ like yard work, have more sex than men who don’t.”
That’s me not keeping up, though the results don’t particularly surprise me. Why it is so is what makes Marche’s work interesting.

Marche began his fascinating perspective on our changing gender relations with a chapter on mansplaining, a term inspired by an essay of Rebecca Solnit to describe someone who insists upon detailing a concept his listener knows more about. In “How Much Should a Man Speak?” Marche suggests that the mansplainer bore at a party or at work is probably the end result of years of cultural training to make men more willing to express their thoughts—a weird perversion of intimacy.

Maybe. I think we might have more examples of mansplaining as just straight-on sexist thought, though like he says, men also experience mansplaining. We’ll just have to agree that such behavior in conversation describes a deeply insecure personality and view each on a case-by-case basis.

This book came about when Marche left his teaching position in NYC to move to Toronto when his wife landed a high-powered, high-paying job as editor of a national magazine. His role as house husband became far more family-centric once his son and eventually his daughter were born. Never strong on the role of housekeeping (“my gonads shrink into my body a bit”), Marche describes how he came to think about his marriage, fatherhood, and sexuality.

There are many moments I would describe as deeply insightful, perfectly thoughtful continuing ed which actually includes notes from his wife, the editor, giving her perspective of his comments. But what if men are not interested in reading about what he has learned about changing gender roles?

Maybe now is the time to point out he has a chapter on pornography, including a description of the image that first electrified him. But there is also the notion that
“Masculine maturity is inherently a lonely thing to possess. That’s why maturity and despair go together for men. The splendid isolation of masculinity has emerged from so much iconography—the cowboy, the astronaut, the gangster—that almost every hero in the past fifty years has been a figure of loneliness. Current pop culture is even more extreme: it doesn’t merely celebrate the lonely man; it despises men in groups. That contempt runs counter to male biology. Men, every iota as much as women, are social creatures who live in a permanent state of interdependence and require connection for basic happiness. In periods of vulnerability the male suicide rates spike.”
The cover blurb on Stephen Marche describes him as a cultural commentator. He is that, every bit as much as the feminist writers he critiques. In his NYT piece, Marche suggests that some people think “men need to be better feminists,” but in this book he tells us “the world doesn’t need male feminists…It needs decent guys.” That sounds right by me.

Finally, I leave you with one of Marche’s paragraphs I know you will enjoy, given the exposure men like Louis C.K. have chosen as their contribution to the gender conversation.
“Diogenes the Cynic masturbated in the marketplace and called it philosophy. Of all the wisdom available in ancient Athens, his was the earthiest, the most practical. He refused to condemn the body out of social propriety. If he was built to ejaculate, he should ejaculate, and therefore he ejaculated where everyone could see him. The Athenians loved him for his frankness, which provoked laughter as much as disgust. When asked why he masturbated in public, he answered, “Would that by rubbing my belly I could get rid of hunger.” Diogenes offered the pagan view of masturbation: Why be ashamed of the easiest expression of masculine desire? Why fear the erasure of male sexual appetite by the lightest, the most harmless of gestures?”

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Augustown by Kei Miller

Pub May 1st 2017 by Pantheon Books (first pub Aug 11th 2016) ISBN13: 9781101871621 Awards: Nominated 2016 Green Carnation Prize, Nominated 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal, Nominated 2017 Shortlist RSL Ondaatje Prize, Nominated 2017 Shortlist HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown

An inverted gold crown on a jet background graces my cover of Kei Miller’s 2016 novel Augustown and the fiction points to the couple of days in the 20th C when the power structure inverted in a small town in Jamaica. A flying preacher, Alexander Bedward, is instrumental in inspiring the beginnings of the Rastafarian movement in 1920’s Jamaica. That story is wrapped around a more current parallel story of Gina, the clever girl some thought would also fly. Power and powerlessness entwine in this novel.

A town is populated with memorable figures like blind Ma Taffy, gun- and drug-runner Marlon, the dread-headed part-white child Kaia born out of wedlock, the childless spinster Sister Gilzene who could sing an operatic soprano, Rastafarian fruit peddler Clarky, the uptight upright teacher Mr. Saint-Josephs whom we suspect is insane, and a white family: a corporate father with ugly values, his wife learning to ignore him, and a boy who was selfish in the way white people are when they ‘do not see color.’

A bit of a thriller, this novel, because we scent blood early on, with the guns Marlon stashes under Ma Taffy’s house, Clarky dying, and crazy old Bedward rising up like some kind of lunatic second coming going. Oppression surrounds and weighs on us like humidity.
“The rastaman thinks, draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess me whose map will be the bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?”
—from Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
Only after I looked for interviews with Miller did I realize he is considered a poet first, though in descriptions of his education he says he started with prose stories. He is lavishly talented, and writes with an enlightened sexual awareness. This novel has a strong set of female characters and in his 2010 collection of poems called A Light Song of Light, we also get that sense of even ground, and more:
Every bed was made illegal by the brush
of chest against chest, and by our sweat.
--from A Short History of Beds We Have Slept in Together
Miller saves his challenges for colonialists and by his words we recognize Miller understands rage and sorrow.
" they have forced us to live in a world lacking in mermaids--mermaids who understood that they simply were, and did not need permission to exist or to be beautiful. The law concerning mermaids only caused mermaids to pass a law concerning man: that they would never again cross our boundaries of sand; never lift their torsos up from the surf; never again wave at sailors, salt dripping from their curls; would never again enter our dry and stifling world."
--from The Law Concerning Mermaids
Historical figures feature in this poetry collection, including Alexander Bedward again, Singerman (Marley?), Nathaniel Morgan, Coolie Duppy, etc. and there is a strong scent of homesickness. Miller has lived in Great Britain for some years now and perhaps is telling the same story over and over, in a new way each time, pruning and training the branches until they remind him of home.

In the poetry collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion published in 2014, Miller’s language is English but there appear so many words we have never seen that we are unsteady, unsure, very nearly undone.

So consider an unsettled island
Inside—the unflattened and unsugared

fields; inside—a tegareg
sprawl of roots and canopies,

inside—the tall sentries of blondwood
and yoke-wood and sweet-wood,

of dog-wood, of bullet trees so hard
they will one day splinter cutlasses,

will one day swing low the carcasses
of slaves; inside—a crawling

brawl of vines, unseemly
flowers that blossom from their spines;

inside—the leh-guh orchids and labrishing
hibiscuses that throw raucous

syllables at crows whose heads are red as annattos; inside—malarial mosquitoes

that rise from stagnant ponds;
inside—a green humidity thick as mud;

inside—the stinging spurge, the nightshades,
the Madame Fates;

inside—spiders, gnats and bees,
wasps and lice and fleas; inside—

the dengue, the hookworm, the heat
and botheration; unchecked macka

sharp as crucifixion. This is no paradise—
not yet—not this unfriendly, untamed island—

this unsanitised, unstructured island—
this unmannered, unmeasured island;

this island: unwritten, unsettled, unmapped.
—from Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion
The unsettlement one feels when reading the poem is curiously the way Miller makes us feel in his novel, though he does not use such words. We retain a kind of distance. Just as well. There is danger everywhere. The only other place that ever gave me this sense of familiarity and menace was another island with a bloody colonial history, Tasmania.

This is a new cultural sphere; it takes some time to accustom to this point-of-view. The language which is at once foreign and familiar, continental and island, melodic and profane, knowing and naive. Hope is not an obvious choice when one is the underclass. Rastafarians have a mighty sense of their closeness to god and ghost. White folk don’t offer the same opportunities. This truth is such a relief after centuries of colonial cant.

We can feel the tide, the sun, the heat; we smell the flowers, the sea, the mangoes. Miller’s language in Augustown is easily poetic, not caught in it but casual and natural. The story, Gina’s growing up and standing up, is where we’re focused. And yet…and yet the bleaching light on the sunbaked road and the overhanging flowers thrust their way into the story, embellishing it, making us a little homesick, too.

The chapter on autoclaps squeezed the heart and was almost pure poetry. This chapter made the book Kei Miller’s. Any other author may have left that chapter out, and they would have been utterly wrong.

We, humans in the world, for centuries in every country, have put men in charge of…everything…our well-being, our safety, our protection. Since barely cognizant, I have always thought that was a lot to lay on one half of the human race. Kei Miller seems to understand this.

And finally, the place, Jamaica, is clearly what Miller is about. He is centered on this and staking out this territory as his own.

The extraordinary talent is evident in Miller’s Youtube video, him talking about his new book of poetry

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Friday, December 1, 2017

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle

Hardcover, 224 pgs, Pub Nov 14th 2017 by Simon Schuster, ISBN13: 9781476726151

This book radiates such loving-kindness, one wishes everyone could share in the bounty. I had not heard of Boyle’s 2009 No. 1 bestseller, called Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, before I heard Krista Tippett interview Father Boyle for her podcast On Being. This second book is a series of true stories about the gang members, former convicts, drug dealers and addicts Father Boyle knows from his ministry, Homeboy Industries, in Los Angeles. Each anecdote carries with it a reminder of the burdens people carry, a prod to do better in our lives, and something small (or big) to meditate on.

A highlight of this book are Boyle’s pointing to and holding up some of the homies’ mangling of common phrases—phrases so ordinary to many of us that we rush by them, never stopping to think them through carefully. By misunderstanding phrases only heard and never read, the homies sometimes hit upon a better, deeper meaning that speaks to their experiences, e.g., “I’m at a pitchfork in my life.”

Father Boyle is following the teaching of the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, and every other effective practitioner of faith and loving-kindness on earth by going with the exhortation to “Stay Close to the Poor.” He discusses this in his usual discursive style near the end of this book, asking
“Is God inclusive or exclusive?…In the end, though, the measure of our compassion with what Martin Luther King calls ‘the last, the least, and the lost’ lies less in our service to those on the margins, and more in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
Radical kinship. If you’ve ever experienced a blast of radical kinship—an openhearted, limitless generosity—you will know it is transformative. And that is where Father Boyle is going.

There are no bad people, only bad actions. We’re all in a stage of becoming. We all are equally able to find grace and create the kind of environment we seek, if given a place to rest and to experience love without expectation of return.
“We are charged not with obliterating our diversity and difference but instead with heightening our connection to each other.”
This is his answer to reconciling diversity and connectedness. It is often thought that the more diverse we are, the less we have in common, the less we can come together over shared goals. This book tells a different story.

Father Boyle’s book about gang members in L.A. finding a place of peace to gather their thoughts together is the antidote to a political world in which power and money are operative goals. We’d all like a little more power, to live as we like without anybody else’s say so, but sometimes the lack of power is the key to humility, and thus to a wide and deep world of loving-kindness. But as Boyle tells Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview: “Prayer is not going to fix our healthcare system. Stop it. Don’t think that. You actually have to do something about guns, you can’t just pray.”

This is powerful stuff, folks, and will be my gift to family and friends at this year-end. When you get your own copy, look carefully at the author photo on the inside back jacket. Have you ever seen a group of people more radiant in your lives?

The Nov 13, 2017 Fresh Air interview, Terry Gross speaking with Father Greg Boyle (36 minutes):

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Hardcover, 367 pgs, Pub Oct 3rd 2017 by One World, ISBN13: 9780399590566, Awards: Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

Coates intersperses notes of his experience each of the eight years of Obama’s presidency along with some of his carefully-researched larger essays previously published in The Atlantic. It is especially worthwhile to read again his earlier pieces in their context with the hindsight a few years bring, and not having to search around several places for his ideas makes this book especially valuable. Most of us were not prepared for Ta-Nehisi Coates when his work first appeared in the monthly magazine. It was his explosive Between the World and Me that shook us awake.

The centerpiece of this collection, “The Case for Reparations,” talks about a
“national reckoning…more than hush money or a reluctant bribe…What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.”
The banishment of white guilt. That is something I would not have gone for. If that is required, I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. I’m on board with “an airing of family secrets, a settling of old ghosts—[a recognition] that American prosperity was ill gotten and selective in its distribution.” But if it comes to making white people, mostly Christians, banish their guilt, I don’t think it will happen. These folks wear guilt like a fur coat.

Whenever he is asked about hope for the future, Coates says he is not responsible for bringing good news. He merely reports the news. He looks at what we have and says what he thinks. But I think “…Reparations” is his most hopeful essay, though filled as it is of horrible instances of degrading racism and exclusion. In it Coates sees a possible way out…if only.
"I believe wrestling publicly with [issues around reparations] matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced…More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders."
It seems we have been hearing Coates everywhere these days—back-to-back interviews on the Radio Atlantic podcast, another podcast of a conversation in Chicago for Krista Tippett’s On Being, etc. But Coates is not overexposed. He still has a way of saying things in a way that allows us to hear him. He’s not asking for anything. He’s just laying it out there, giving us the opportunity to step up.

Right after his ground-breaking essay on reparations, the first paragraph of his notes for year seven of the Obama presidency takes away any hope he might have given us about the possibility for change.
“To be black in America was to be plundered. To be white was to benefit from, and at times directly execute, this plunder. No national conversation, no invocations to love, no moral appeals, no pleas for ‘sensitivity’ and ‘diversity,’ no lamenting of ‘race relations’ could make this right.”
Boom. “Racism was banditry, pure and simple. And the banditry was not incidental to America, it was essential to it.” How lucky we have been that this man escaped everything that conspired to hold him silent: “black people in America do not generally have the luxury of recording their ‘feelings…’”

Born to a black household secure in their determination to be black and proud of it, and having been educated in the heart of black learning at Howard University, Coates did not unlearn or give away his heritage to fit in with white culture. He is talented, but he is also unusual in that he didn't have to give away large parts of himself to get where he is. We are the beneficiaries of such a voice, for there aren’t enough who can express with such clarity and singularity of purpose arguments we need to consider. Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning, is another.

One of Coates’ last essays in this collection, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” begins with the themes Daniel Moynihan wrote about in a report written for Department of Labor during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” i.e., the disintegration of black American families under the pressure of centuries of oppression and neglect. From the poisonous atmosphere in a government where Moynihan’s ideas circulated freely without policy recommendations, arose a means to solve that problem: incarcerate wrong-doers, something Moynihan had not recommended.

Coates’ exegesis of the Moynihan argument is thorough, and non-ideological. He is not quick to praise because there is plenty to dislike, but he recognizes where Moynihan was correct in his analysis. By the end he is pointing out something that many of us can now identify:
“[Moynihan’s] 'The Negro Family' is a flawed work in part because it is a fundamentally sexist document that promotes the importance not just of family but of patriarchy, arguing black men should be empowered at the expense of black women.”
In Coates’ final essay, his Epilogue, talks about “The First White President,” the man who won the presidency only because he was a white male. What an insight! But I want to highlight what Coates says in “My President was Black,” about President Obama.
“…I found it interesting that [Obama’s] optimism does not extend to the possibility of the public’s accepting …the moral logic of reparations…that the president, by his own account, has accepted for himself and is willing to teach his children...The notion that a president would attempt to achieve change within the boundaries of the accepted consensus is appropriate But Obama is almost constitutionally skeptical of those who seek to achieve change outside that consensus.
Not that we expect it to be easy, but sometimes people are more ready than we imagine.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age by Andrew O'Hagan

Hardcover, Pub Oct 10th 2017 by Farrar Straus and Giroux ISBN13: 9780374277918, Lit Awards: Longlisted for 2017 Gordon Burn Prize

Scottish writer Andrew O'Hagan is a difficult man to dismiss. Here he tells three stories based around computers and two strange Australians and makes something weird and wild and kind of spectacular. The first story, "Ghosting," regards the time he was asked to interview for the opportunity to possibly ghostwrite Julian Assange's biography. O'Hagan is distant, observant, and precise, early on telling us
"It was interesting to see how he parried with some notion of himself as a public figure, as a rock star, really, when all the activists I've ever known tend to see themselves as marginal and possibly eccentric figures. Assange referred a number of times to the fact that people were in love with him, but I couldn't see the coolness, the charisma he took for granted."
Assange comes across as a paranoid narcissist, deeply confused about his role and his life, about what he does and how he wants to be remembered. O'Hagan put the time in, listening and writing, and comes away burned.

The second story, "The Invention of Ronald Pinn," feels dangerous. O'Hagan takes on the identity of a young lad who'd died young, Ronnie Pinn, so that he, O'Hagan, could enter the Deep Web and see how it operated. O'Hagan's invented Pinn
"tended toward certain enterprises of his own volition...[including] with secretive experts about drugs and false documents and guns...The 'people' now moderating the Dark Web don't care about the old codes of citizenship and they don't recognize the laws of society. They don't believe that governments or currencies or historical narratives are automatically legitimate, or event that the personalities who appear to run the world are who they say they are. The average hacker believes most executives to be functionaries of a machine they can't understand."
When O'Hagan finally gives up the online ruse, he finds Pinn lingers longer in cyberspace, and in his psyche, than he'd anticipated.

The final essay, "The Satoshi Affair," was originally published in LRB a year or so ago. It is a very long, totally immersive essay about the possible originators of Bitcoin, and what the currency will mean for revolutionizing business and banking. If you haven't read much about the subject, this is a good place to start. Don't worry if some of it slips by without your understanding. I have a feeling we're all going feel that way for quite awhile.

O'Hagan is special. You won't be wasting your time, reading about his fascinating digital interface with the world.

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You Can't Spell America Without Me by Alec Baldwin & Kurt Andersen

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Nov 7th 2017 by Penguin Press, ISBN13: 9780525521990

I have a hard time listening to DJT at the best of times, and listening to him at all now is a drain, nearly a year into the most bizarre presidency ever. Therefore I almost didn’t bother with Alex Baldwin’s parody which would have been a pity. I later learned (via NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul interviews Kurt Andersen) this book was written in collaboration with novelist Kurt Andersen, who knew Trump back in the day. Andersen and Baldwin manage to channel DJT to an extraordinary extent, using DJT's actual words, sentence constructions, and speech idiosyncrasies for reconstructions and deep dives into his psyche.

This is deeply funny and unsettling stuff. Racist, sexist, religionist attitudes leach into his writing ("talking is the new writing"), surely not intentionally—he seems so completely ignorant of it. He makes juvenile jokes about Japanese names and the extent of Japanese disquiet over the cancellation of T.P.P., and expresses a kind of shocked surprise at how much the African American security people earn to protect him, especially after that discrimination suit they won…He blissfully mispronounces Philippine proverbs throughout the work, rendering them in his version of Tagalog, and mangling the translations.

Actual DJT tweets and quotes run into plausible extensions which elaborate his thinking gut feelings. Constantly finding ways to plug his golf courses and properties, branded steaks, wine, and ties, Trump finds his new job is awash in business opportunities: one could use military jets, perhaps, to bring same-day Nebraska grass-fed beef direct to the tables of his hotels. Andersen and Baldwin pick out current themes in American masculinity, politics, art, and critical thought and introduce the rogue element that is DJT.
“The chapter you just read was written personally by me, Donald Trump…this entire book, the words and sentences and the larger sections…the paragraphs, the chapters, all mine…and it's the best...”
By the end of the book, DJT is willing to ship Melania back to Yugoslavia ("I didn’t realize she’d come in illegally…" and "she's 50 years old this year") and he poses himself in front of a camera waving at the departing plane carrying his third wife while, written into the script, a single tear falls silently in the closeup. Sad.
"The president has unlimited Presidential Pardon Power (PPP), which means I could even pardon myself…PPP…"
DJT seems only to love his now 11-year-old son, Barron. He’s "so smart,""he’s like an adult now." One of the riffs I enjoyed most was about Paul Ryan, who looks
"like a smiling vampire…always glances at himself in windows and mirrors…it’s kinda gay…that afternoon Paul Ryan definitely looked untrustworthy. When I have strong instincts, they always mean something."
When you get to the part on North Korea, you will understand the depth of his delusions.
"I’ve never been to North Korea, I never took a course…but discussing it strongly for ten minutes, not with some CIA analyst or some State Department know-it-all, I now totally, completely, absolutely understand…that’s how CEO’s do it."
And his conflation of vote tallies:
"I won sixty percent of the electoral vote which is the same as Reagan and FDR…won of the popular vote."

These two men take the time to make us see the absurdity in DJT’s utterances…they go through all of it…right through his hiring family for jobs hardened professionals have trouble handling, to our foreign relations, the collusion, the shallowness of businessmen’s understanding of cultural relations, the voting…”It Finally Felt Real Like a Movie” is a chapter title, but it does tend to put the whole thing in perspective.

I suggest we take every opportunity to laugh while we can, all the while building up energy to take this clown down. Even if you think you are tired of all things Trump, these men have done a brilliant job of it, so have a listen, or a peruse. Laugh with friends at enemies. The audio is produced by Penguin Audio, and this book has a Whispersync option, a good choice for this title. Published by Penguin Random House.

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan, & The Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century by Richard McGregor

Hardcover, 416 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Viking, ISBN13: 9780399562679

This deeply researched look at the China, Japan, U.S. triangle of strategic alliances is thickly studded with anecdote and new material uncovered in Freedom of Information requests, document declassifications, on-the-ground observation, and high-level meeting transcripts. Even the Introduction and Afterword are packed with unique material when these areas are more commonly places for overview and summing up. Altogether it is an achievement that will be the backbone for Asia-gazing for years to come.

McGregor looks at the trilateral relationships from the post-WWII period through the election of 2016 when Japan was the first to greet the month-old American president in New York City, not even waiting until Trump reached the White House. “The U.S. withdrawal from T.P.P. was the biggest shock to the alliance since Nixon went to China,” McGregor quotes Japan’s premier foreign policy commentator Yoichi Funabashi. After Abe had time to sit down with Trump in February 2017 and a joint statement drafted by Abe’s team to be delivered from the White House was proffered, Trump only insisted upon one change. “In place of ‘Donald Trump,’ the president said it should read ‘Donald J. Trump.’” So much for substance. “By the way, I love China. I love Japan.” Trump protests too much.

The book is arranged by decade until the “The Twenty-First Century,” a mammoth section encompassing fifteen years of toxic rivalry between the two Asian giants. McGregor has been on the ground in Asia for nearly thirty years and he shares the hopes, dreams, and personalities of leaders in China, Japan and America with the distance and caution good journalists cultivate. Compared with the rest of the world, Asia has been an explosion of good news, economic powerhouses doing what they do best, not waking up each morning, as Obama notes, “thinking about how to kill Americans.” (North Korea aside.)

But American economic and military presence in Asia paradoxically may have kept the Sino-Japan rivalry from resolving, despite their economic bilateral relationship that is among the most valuable in the world. If America packs up and goes home now, forces in Asia could amplify disputes and aggressions unacceptably. In answer to the question posed by Harvard professor Graham Allison whether China and America can avoid Thucydides’ trap, the conflict that arises when an established power (U.S.) is challenged by a rising rival (China), McGregor makes the point that Thucydides also said that as dangerous as it is to build an empire, it is even more dangerous to let it go. It is this second point that I worry about more when looking over the region.

McGregor’s special skill in this terrifically interesting and detailed reference work is humanizing the figures of government leadership and staff. We learn about the mostly men and few women involved in setting policy, their positions in their own governments, the official face of discussions and the more free-flowing and often contradictory attitudes in prep sessions and afterwards. We learn about specific American negotiators and their preparation [or lack of] for their Asia talks, their likes and dislikes, their knowledge and ignorance, and how these came to influence their official attitudes.

Thirty-seven black-and-white photographs punctuate this history, and illustrate the number of leaders each country has churned through in the past half-century of diplomacy. Both Xi Jinping of China and Shinzō Abe of Japan are long-running formative leaders who will leave deep imprints on their nation’s psyches. DJT’s presidency is a kind of lacuna in American foreign policy, a gap that will be filled with these two Asian powerhouses.

We all lived through the past eight years when Obama was forming relationships with allies in Asia. McGregor makes us feel as though we missed a lot. While I’d thought Obama was warmly received in Asia generally, we learn here that Obama “did not do chemistry… but he learned to do face.” Obama left the stage having made few friends, but he had reassured Japan, negotiated the T.P.P. which would eventually accrue benefit to the U.S., if not necessarily in strictly economic terms.

I hadn’t been aware that Abe had floated the idea that Japan would be willing to form a loose alliance among the Asian democracies (India, Australia, the U.S., and Japan) to promote democracy. None of the other countries was enthusiastic, Australia being resistant to being drawn into the possibility of Sino-Japanese conflict down the line.

McGregor reminds us that “forging, building, managing, and sustaining alliances and other partnerships had been one of America’s greatest skills in the postwar era.” That compliment comes as McGregor recounts the final overseas trip of Ash Carter, Obama’s fourth and last secretary of defense.

Asia had lately been touted as the most important region of the world for the United States, but which had gotten the least amount of attention. Obama had been willing to accommodate China’s regional expectation of dominance to some extent, for which he got unceasing criticism in Japan. Trump’s attitude is that Japan “used to routinely beat China.” Therefore, he is said to reason, why defend Japan at all?

The U.S. willingness to accommodate China’s ascendency, and to encourage Japan’s increase in defensive weaponry and capability, is part and parcel of “letting go” of America’s strong, some might say stabilizing, role in Asia. We’re about to find out which is the more dangerous route, and for whom.

This book is available as a Penguin Random House audiobook, beautifully read by Steve West. The audiobook is a wonderful choice to make progress on the book when other obligations are pressing. However, I still liked having the hardcopy to refer to: there is a lot of information here, much of it new. You may need access to both vehicles to get the most out of this. It's worth it.

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