Tuesday, January 30, 2018

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark: A Play by Lynn Nottage

Paperback, 112 pgs, Pub Oct 15th 2013 by Theatre Communications Group (first pub Jan 1st 2011), ISBN13: 9781559364423

Lynn Nottage plays are uncluttered and make an immediate point; they are funny but also point to race and the way it plays out for actors and their audience. This one has a big surprise at the end and overall leaves an impression of light-heartedness and humor...as much as one can be when one is dead serious about painful truths. The roles for black actresses in Hollywood in the 1930s were ridiculously few: one had be a slave or a maid, there was nothing else. White directors wanted the black roles to be filled with "real" country folk descended from slaves, as though acting weren't the point after all. Actors would scheme for these parts nonetheless.

This two-act play addresses three time periods, all set in Hollywood: 1933, 1973, and 2003. At least half the cast is black, and half is white.

Act One opens in 1933 on the bedroom of a white actress who is having some trouble learning her lines. Her black maid Vera is prompting her, not without a little throw-away sarcasm. The two seem especially intimate in conversation but there is no love lost, particularly. One gathers that the white woman relies on the black maid to keep her organized and producing, and the black maid is a tiny bit resentful that her assistance is not rewarded with bit parts in the actress' films. That is why they are all in Hollywood, after all.

It's a terrific short play, packed with great language and situational pranks. At the same time, it conveys a real truth that has everything to do with what is being discussed, finally, in Hollywood under the aegis #OscarsSoWhite. The black actress Gabrielle Union wrote in her recently published memoir, We're Going to Need More Wine, that black actresses need to be given more and better roles in order to be recognized. The talent is there, it just needs to be showcased. Same story, nearly a century later.

In Act Two the time has jumped to 2003 when a group of people are discussing Vera's brilliant acting in an underwritten bit part that raises the movie to the level "Art." They reference Vera's last known TV interview in 1973, forty years after the film was made, when she met again with the lead of the film, the white woman of Act One, Scene One.

So enamored am I of Nottage's plays, I hesitate to chose a favorite from among them, but this one, with it's layered time, great comic roles, and deliberate pointing to the lack of substantive change across a century, is among my favorites. Vera's personality changes in the forty years since the film was made, but she remains a consummate actress to the end.

This play satirizes the Hollywood and all the well-intentioned but unmistakably dull audience that takes what it is fed by delusional directors and does not demand more and better writing, casting, acting, directing. I love it.

Other Nottage plays recently reviewed:
Intimate Apparel

A special treat for Nottage fans: a short play, "Poof," by Nottage posted as a Playing on Air podcast. At the very end is an interview with the author. Enjoy!

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Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

Hardcover, 296 pgs, Pub July 11 2017 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812997316, Lit Awards: Reading Women Award Nominee for Nonfiction (2017)

Michelle Kuo’s debut stopped me in my tracks. All other work I had on my plate was shoved to the side while I read this nonfiction detailing Kuo’s after-college years teaching English to at-risk kids in Helena, Arkansas in the Mississippi Delta region. As a piece of literature, this memoir succeeds beautifully; her organization is laced with poetry and the work exudes a kind of transcendental grace. More than once I found myself barking out sobs at the waste of lives we tolerate every day and for her recognition of the means by which we express and acknowledge thanks.

Back in 2009 Kuo had published a piece in the NYT Magazine about her two years teaching in Arkansas, and a special student she had there. In one year that student’s reading had progressed two grade levels and his attendance had improved dramatically. His classmates has also named Ms. Kuo a great influence on their lives. The at-risk school closed for lack of funding just as her kids were entering high school. Then Ms. Kuo left to attend law school in Boston.

One of the things I liked best about this story is the self-questioning Kuo does regarding her reasons for choosing to teach in the Delta. She explains how racism impacted her and how, learning of writers of the civil rights movement, she felt exhilarated and enabled. She did not think she would do well trying to change the minds of self-interested people in power, but she thought she could bring notions of empowerment to those who had no advocates.

Kuo’s parents are my favorite characters in this story. Immigrants from Taiwan, they’d sacrificed everything to give their children more opportunities. When their clever and talented daughter graduated from Harvard and chose to teach in the Mississippi Delta region, they were confused, embarrassed, hurt. She could go anywhere and do anything, and she chooses social and racial justice work in the deep South. She doesn’t claim religious beliefs, and the work wasn’t easy. By the end of her story all of us can see that her generosity of spirit comes directly from her parents, though they didn’t recognize it at first.

Kuo names the chapters in her story after works of literature: poems, short stories, novels, or in one case, after the words of an affidavit her prize student, Patrick, signs to acknowledge his role in the death of a man. Patrick had dropped out of school when Ms. Kuo left for law school, had allowed his reading and writing skills to languish, and was a vulnerable teen with no oversight in a town that didn’t care very much. Kuo returns to the Delta to teach Patrick in prison, organizing her life so that she can try, in a few short months, to bring back some of the promising boy she’d seen years ago.

There were other teachers from northern schools who’d come to the Delta to teach in underserved communities and some had stayed. When Kuo returned to Helena, she was treated to their successes: the segregated black school did better on their state math scores than did the white schools. For the first time white families were complaining their better-resourced schools weren't providing the same kind of opportunity others had; they were moving their kids over.

What Kuo hadn’t been prepared for was that the man she saw in jail bore almost no resemblance to the promising boy she’d left years before. Now nineteen, Patrick could no longer read or write well. He expected nothing from anyone, least of all from himself. But he did remember what it felt like to have Ms. Kuo as a teacher. “It made going to school—you know, made it really mean something, somebody that care for you.”

Kuo infuses her work with the language of poets, and insists that we, like Patrick, listen to the sounds and decipher the deeper meanings. She shows us what teaching can be, and what a gift it is when done right. Discipline and good behavior often comes from not wanting to disappoint a mentor, and that impetus is what Kuo provided for Patrick. She draws for us the everyday reality of Patrick’s world so we do not blame him for his own inadequacies.

In this way, the memoir is a political book. We are persuaded that certain educational and social polices are not as helpful as others. We can see that there can be benefits to assistance and huge, disgraceful, unacceptable human losses without them. It is unforgivable of us to allow such disparities in opportunity, but we need those whose opportunity is stolen to acknowledge and address that lack. Ms. Kuo teaches us about that nexus, and we are grateful.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Intimate Apparel: A Play by Lynn Nottage

Paperback, 72 pgs, Pub Jan 1 2005 by Dramatists Play Service, Inc., ISBN13: 9780822220091. Awards: Outer Critics Circle Awards (2004) & John Gassner Award – Lynn Nottage, Drama Desk Awards (2004) - Viola Davis, Lucille Lortel Awards (2005) - Derek McLane & Catherine Zuber, Obie Award (2003–04) - Viola Davis & Derek McLane

In the past several weeks I have reviewed two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays by Lynn Nottage, Sweat and Ruined. Both were brilliant works, simple in concept and staging, complex in emotional resonance and in social commentary. The prizes awarded for those later plays included the promise of her earlier plays, like this one, which first came to the stage when Nottage was thirty-nine.

It is 1905. An exceptionally-talented unmarried black seamstress, Esther, sews lingerie for wealthy white women and the black prostitutes they envy…envy for their bodies, their freedom, and the fact that the black women are getting nooky while the white wives are not. Esther is not especially pretty but hopes one day to marry. She carries on a long-distance romantic relationship by mail with a man she has never met. Eventually the brawny workman from Barbados who is digging the Panama Canal comes to New York.

The play is visually exciting: there is much color and sensuality in the fabrics Esther chooses for her craft, all bought from an orthodox Jewish salesman named Marks who has a weakness for a good story. He is also unmarried, and like Esther, is engaged to a person he has never met. Esther and Marks are attracted to one another through their mutual love of fabric, but could never consider an alliance, given that she is black and he is Jewish.

Special moments of emotional truth come when Esther describes her epistolary relationship with the man from Barbados to her best friend, Mayme, a beautiful woman wearing herself out working the Tenderloin district for uncaring brutes. Mayme teases Esther mercilessly for her naiveté when it comes to men, but suddenly “acknowledges Esther’s hurt” at her sharp dismissal and takes Esther’s face between her hands. Moments of tenderness like these punctuate the work; everyone who knows Esther wants to protect her from hurt.

The play showcases black female friendship, and the close sense of community that forms around people of talent who earn little yet depend upon one another to hold one another up. We also see the souring of a marital relationship when the husband is dependent, and the exploitative and ultimately dismissive relationship between a black wage earner and her white mistress who doesn't see the power disparity in their relationship. The interactions between characters so familiar in our society, are nonetheless treated with great sensitivity, subtlety, and particularity.

The play takes only a couple hours to read and yet offers lots of story and visual and aural excitement. Mayme, it turns out, is a talented pianist who ends up turning tricks and playing ragtime to a syncopated beat.

Imagine Viola Davis in the role of Esther, which she did off-Broadway in 2004 at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City, and for which she won several awards and was nominated for several more.

As it turns out, the story has the ring of personal history: Lynn Nottage's own grandmother was a seamstress in New York and her grandfather was Barbadian who worked on the Panama Canal. The play is a reimagining of history, since few details are known.

Below please find a clip from teh Montreal production:

The fascinating YouTube video below features people associated with the play’s production and runs about fifteen minutes.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Good White People by Shannon Sullivan

Paperback, 214 pgs, Pub June 1st 2014 by State University of New York Press, ISBN13: 9781438451688, Series: SUNY Series, Philosophy and Race

In a way I wish this book weren’t as dense with ideas as it is, but it shows us that this race stuff is not simple or easy. The struggle to understand what it will take to fix this messy problem should make pessimists of us but indeed Sullivan’s book is so thoughtful and addresses so many aspects of American race issues that we also have reason to hope—that people like this will guide a new generation forward with new tools.

Shannon Sullivan's Introduction alone made me want to recommend this book to every well-intentioned white person who thought they want to convey their ‘wokeness.’ Basically she is saying, and I agree, that it’s not going to be so easy as that. We’re going to have to be the handmaidens of this movement, not the tip of the spear. Ain’t nobody so woke they can’t learn a few new lessons.

When J.D. Vance came out with his autobiography Hillbilly Elegy, some critics pointed out that he was tentatively making a larger point about the American political system and poor white country folk but ignored the issue of race. Sullivan dives right in and seizes that nexus of class and race and explains why middle class white folks, the “good white [liberals]” of the title feel more comfortable with middle class black folk than with ‘poor white trash’: because 1) poor white folk embarrass them and fracture the rules of white social etiquette; and 2) the white middle class like to believe they are openminded and that opportunity for black people exists.

At the end of this chapter she makes the point that white supremacists cannot be sidelined if we are to move forward in a democracy. They must be engaged. It is too much to expect that black people would have to engage these folks and still preserve their sense of self, so this may be the role that well meaning white “allies” might have to play: engage these folks. Not what we would have chosen, but undoubtedly necessary.

The second point Sullivan makes is that white people cannot wish away their white ancestors, or declare them anathema. We must recognize that those folk operated under different social, political, and economic conditions and that we may have done what they did in the same circumstances. What they did perpetuating slavery was undoubtedly wrong, but we can’t just say, “that’s not us.” We have to concede that it indeed might have been us, and we still benefit from the privileges granted us from that time, e.g., money, status, opportunity. etc.

This point is one white folk want to shy away from, but in fact black writers on race have been saying this for awhile now. We have to acknowledge slavery in the United States damaged the prospects for black folk, and that while we did not do these things, to this day white folk benefit.

There are only four points in this book, but they are very carefully looked at from several directions so that our confusion, fears, or objections, should we have any, are carefully answered. Other reviewers have said Sullivan’s third issue, discussing the “disease of color-blindness,” has been the most influential one in the process of teaching and raising their children. White people have to start talking about race, which for many of us growing up was something well-brought-up people did not do. Talking about race was done by white supremacists or white trash.

That’s over now; it is necessary to talk about race, our own race, in order to acknowledge that our own race is not neutral. It also has cultural habits and color. And in many cases, it comes with its own assumed ‘rightness,’ or first place in a hierarchy of correctness. Black folk, it appears, would prefer we do talk about race because otherwise it is the elephant in the room. They have to deal with the consequences of race daily. It seems right to them that we do, too.

What Sullivan is able to do is to suggest ways to discuss race and color and the history of privilege with children at an early age. Her researches show, and we ourselves know very well, that children pick up unspoken cues from our behaviors even if we never say a word. She suggests we steer the learning process by discussing race openly, recognizing how it plays out in our neighborhoods and playgrounds, and address it head on. This is especially true if very few black individuals live in our neighborhoods, which can lead to early learning about why that would be so.

Sullivan’s last point addresses white guilt, which is tied in with acknowledgment of the wrongs perpetuated on black folk in American history and abroad. We, good white people all, have guilt. But that guilt is not useful when talking about racial justice. We must jettison the guilt, and/or shame; Sullivan argues that
“a critical form of self love is a more valuable affect to be cultivated by white people who care about racial justice.”
Why? White guilt can be a paralyzing emotion that can impede racial justice. White guilt can inhibit action but also judgment. Racial justice needs people who have some moral authority and can respect people of color enough to disagree with them.

James Baldwin hoped that black people would not retaliate against white oppressors for one reason only: that it hurts twice. Once when the aggression is perpetrated, and again when it is retaliated against. Religious leaders who were also victims of oppression have been saying this since the beginning of time. ‘Love thine enemies.’ It is what black Christians did after the nine Dylan Roof killings in Charleston, South Carolina at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. White people were shocked. Real Christian values? How can it be? White evangelicals appear to have lost their connection to Christianity some time ago.
“People of color have long been aware of the toxicity of white people’s affections and emotions…Love has not been the dominant affect that characterizes white people.”
In her conclusions Sullivan warns good white liberals not to expect intimacy. There is still a lack of trust and the white gaze can be like white noise: it obliterates other creative expression. The book is dense with insight, much more than I reproduced here. It should be on everyone’s list of must-reads, along with bell hooks, whose writing you are sure to encounter when you have begun investigating race. Sullivan writes in the Introduction that “perhaps in the future racial categories will not exist.” In the future, augmented and non-augmented humans may be the critical divisors. Skin color would be just another descriptor.

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Monday, January 22, 2018

How the Right Lost It's Mind by Charles J. Sykes

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Oct 3 2017 by St. Martin's Press, ISBN13: 9781250147172

A conservative journalist and former radio host from Wisconsin, Charles Sykes now contributes opinions to national media outlets and still champions a few voices he calls conservative, e.g., Jennifer Rubin, George Will, Bret Stephens, Bill Kristol, among others. His conservative bonafides are proven by his longtime support for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin politico, now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Sykes broke with the lunatic fringe that has taken over right wing politics during the lead up to the 2016 election when people he knew would contact him with crazy stories they’d gotten off the web, which were then passed around and repeated by candidates and lawmakers, despite clearly being false stories.

Sykes traces a dawning recognition of the Right’s delusions to the 1964 essay by Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics:”
“The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has gradually been undermined by socialist and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”
This sense of loss can also be seen in the Right’s far-right wing. In her groundbreaking book, Democracy in Chains, Nancy MacLean traces this fear to a monied class--the "old competitive capitalism"--that was essentially Southern money accumulated through the use of slaves. Integration and the Voting Rights Act threw that old slave money into a tizzy. They didn’t want ‘intellectuals’ or government telling them what to think or how to spend their inheritances.

Back with Sykes’ main thesis, we are treated to a quick run through Republican history since the 1960s, noting in passing Buckley, Goldwater & the Birchers, and the rise of the New Right in the 1970s who were impatient with establishment conservatism, i.e., conservative IV-Leaguers were “sellouts” back in the 70s (?!) Sykes credits Nicole Hemmer in Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics for pointing out that the Reagan presidency oddly coincided with a declining conservative media. Without that conservative echo chamber we see now, there was no group enforcing political purity and Reagan had more latitude.

That ended in the 1990s, when the end of the George W. Bush presidency showed the party to be in disarray. Many political analysts on both sides of the aisle now point to the Gingrich Contract with America (1997) and the rise of Fox News (also 1997) as the beginning go the end for democratic systems as we had always known them, with both parties far more aggressive and divisive than ever before.

While we go along without much objection to Sykes’ analysis through much of the book, a few things hit a false note:
“Many journalists do not recognize their bias any more than a fish recognizes it is wet: The swim in an ocean of like-minded professionals. Being pro-choice on abortion was simply the position of everyone they knew, while opposition to abortion rights was, by definition, 'controversial.'”
This from a man whose profession is journalist. It is controversial to oppose abortion rights, obviously, because abortion rights have been the law of our great country for forty years. Assuming adherence to the law is not a bias, sir.

Sykes defense of Ryan is indefensible:
“In contrast to Trump. Ryan’s approach reflected the distinctive sort of conservatism that had flourished in Wisconsin: principled, pragmatic, reformist, but not afraid of taking on tough, controversial issues.”
I guess we can put those ideas to bed now, given Ryan’s not-so-principled stance at the feet of DJT. Ryan was always about ignoring the country when it suited him. Pragmatic, perhaps. Principled, no.

Sadly, Paul Ryan is not the furthest right one can get without falling off the planet. His Breitbart-supported challenger Paul Nehlen horrifies with his statements about immigration and support for white supremacy. But Sykes begins to talk about Friedrich Hayek, Ryan’s favorite political philosopher, on the subject of authoritarianism:
“Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”
Hayek also says the populist impulse leads to handing power to a 'strong man,' a position which precedes the suppression of democratic institutions and the creation of a totalitarian regime. This is Sykes now:
"the preconditions for the rise of a demagogic dictator is a dumbed-down populace, a gullible electorate, and a common enemy or group or scapegoats upon which to focus public enmity. The more educated a society is, Hayek says, the more diverse their tastes and values will be…the flip side being that ‘if we wish to find a high degree of uniformity and similarity of outlook, we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive and common instincts and tastes prevail.’"
Since modern societies do not have enough of these primitive people, “he will have to increase their numbers by converting more to the same simple creed,” which is where propaganda comes in.

This is pretty heady stuff when we look at this past twenty-four months, when Breitbart & co put all this jazz into action. It actually worked. Paul Ryan and his henchmen rode on the coattails of the dumbing down movement and have shafted us with proposals we did not like and do not want. Near the end of this long explanation for the Republican Party decline, Sykes addresses the so-called Christians. Evangelicals were read portions of editorials suggesting DJT’s appeal was "dangerously close to Satan’s offer to Jesus in Luke 4:9: ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’" The study found white evangelical support dropped after hearing this argument. Good grief.

The conservative party is over, gone, kaput, destroyed. Just this morning in the Washington Post, conservative pundit Jennifer Rubin said the same thing. Good riddance to bad rubbish is how I look at it. Hold onto some important ideas and start again. The left needs a right or it gets out of kilter. Stop bemoaning the implosion of your party (something the ‘liberal intellectual elite’ saw long ago, by the way) and get to work rebuilding a coalition. We have work to do! Governance. What a novel idea.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Ruined: A Play by Lynn Nottage

Paperback, 102 pgs, Pub Sept 1st 2009 by Theatre Communications Group (first published 2009), ISBN13: 9781559363556, Lit Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2009)

Playwright Lynn Nottage won her first Pulitzer Prize for this play, commissioned by and premiered in November 2008 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The back of the book reproduces the songs created for the play, musical composition by Dominic Kanza, lyrics by Nottage. The music for “You Come Here to Forget” is fast, using lots of black keys, while “A Rare Bird” has a chord-heavy left hand and a thinly-picked out treble overlaid. The set for this play is a seedy, well-used bar in a small mining town close by a rain forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congolese government soldiers and rebels broken into factions all patronize Mama Nadi’s bar and her “girls,” the women contracted to her because they were run out of their own families after kidnapping and repeated savage rape by one of the warring parties. All have been psychologically damaged by their experiences, but they usually try to support one another within their current confinement in Mama Nadi’s bar.

The heat is made apparent by the repeated calls for a cold drink, whether beer or Fanta is a matter of some debate. Mama Nadi makes her living offering libation to fighters, and she is proud she has managed well for so long. She does not appear to be afraid. She has regular customers, including a supplier who one day brings her some girls, including one who is “ruined.” Her captors had used a bayonet to rape her; she was in pain, she couldn’t pay her way, and her future was dim.

Mama Nadi is a businesswoman, not a bleeding heart, but upon learning that Sophia can read, sing, and keep accounts, Mama reneges and accepts her into the fold to work essentially as slave labor. The exploitation of one by another happens everywhere everyday in this patch, roiling beneath the surface, and only breaking through on special occasions, like the one that comes near the end of the play.

That occasion comes shortly after we learn of a breathtakingly grotesque act of revenge perpetrated on a nearby mission for suspected betrayal. The tension level at Mama Nadi’s skyrockets when the government troops there learn they just missed by minutes the rebel leader they have been hotly pursuing. Anything which brings on the wrath of either warring party may easily tip into something more dreadful than death.

This extraordinary play is a work of witness to the suffering of the people of the Congo who are pawns in the drama that constitutes their lives. The wealth of minerals in the Congo is paradoxically proving to be a greater curse than a blessing, and the curse has lasted for such a long time. The story is drawn from life: in the back of this book are photographs of the women whose story this is.

Originally conceived as a remake of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, the play took on an entirely different character after Nottage met a group of survivors in the DRC when she visited with collaborator Kate Whoriskey, who writes the introduction to this volume. However, the word 'ruined' survives from Brecht; both the meaning and the interpretation changes several times during the play.

Stage directions allow us to picture this play as it unfolds, to imagine actors, to envision our own rage. However easy it is to conjure up these images, it must be a particularly rich experience to see the work performed. Its simplicity of expression paired with a complexity of human emotion may be the thing that raises this play above its fellows. Definitely worth seeing it performed, the work is ultimately redemptive. But read it if you must, as I have.

This interview with two main cast members also has video of the Washington, D.C. performance where you can hear a bit of the music.

Below is a slide show of the production in Boston, with original music:

And music & clips from the Berkeley performance:

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Various

Foolish me. I thought I was going to look at the different editions of The Iliad and choose the one most readable but did not reckon with the overwhelming beauty of the language and story. The truth is, it does not matter which edition you choose, so long as you read at least one. It is inevitable that you will find yourself drawn to the question of the most beautiful and complete rendition but you may (wisely) concede defeat at the beauty of each.

The Homeric epics are said to be the greatest martial stories ever sung or written of all time, so if for some reason they did not resonate for you in high school, you may want to revisit what your teachers were talking about. When they describe the death of a man in the full bloom of his strength looking like an flower in a rainstorm, head and neck aslant, unable to withstand the beating rain, we understand. I listened to the audio of Stephen Mitchell’s streamlined translation, and it was utterly ravishing and compelling.

The Iliad is one episode among many in Homer’s epics, and it may have been assumed that listeners of the original spoken performance would be familiar with all the players in this war. It is argued by some, including British scholar M.L. West, that The Iliad has had pieces added to it over the years. Stephen Mitchell follows West’s scholarship and strips out the extra passages, a notion expanded upon in a review of Mitchell’s translation by classicist Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker (2011). Mitchell’s translation may be the most readable, the most listenable one in English. It is also the shortest. Mitchell also shortens the lines in English so that they have speed and momentum for an impressive delivery.

The recent (2017) Peter Green translation, begun when Green was nearly 90 years old, is similarly easy to read; Green tells us that he began in a relaxed attitude for diversion and completed the whole within a year. Colin Burrow reviewed Green's translation in the June 18th 2015 edition of the London Review of Books. Neither the writing or the reading of this version is anguished or tortured, and Burrow points out that Green was a historian but didn't allow that to obfuscate or weigh down the poetry.

The Green & Mitchell versions both retain a long recitation of those who prepared their ships to sail with Agamemnōn to Troy to bring back Helen, the wife of Menelaös. One imagines ancient listeners shouting when their region is named, much along the lines of the cheering section of a field game, when each player’s name is called. And later, as the blow-by-blow of the battle proceeded, one imagines each region cheering when mention of their leader is declaimed, though some died horrible deaths.

This is another reason to read this ancient work: We live and die not unlike one another, we who lived so far apart in time, and perhaps the ardor young men of today have for the sword and for fame will be doused by the utterly desolate manner of death recounted here, one in particular that I cannot forget: a spear through the buttock and into the bladder meant a painful and ugly death. However, it is true that Achilles chose fame over life, knowing that his exploits in Troy would mean his physical death but his fame amongst men would be sung for “thousands of years.”

One wonders how the ballad was delivered—in pieces or over a period of days—perhaps in sections by different singers? Caroline Alexander, after a lifetime of her own research into the Homeric epics argues in The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War that the work certainly required days to recite, and may have been performed in episodes. The length of the piece now suggests the work was once short enough to be memorized, with a few repeated lines leaving headspace for the singer's invention and modification as befits the oral tradition.

I wonder now which European language has the most translations, and do they sometimes dare to attempt translations from ancient Greek to, say, French, and then to English? It seems we have enough scholars understanding ancient Greek to give us satisfactory versions without resorting to piggybacked translations. An attempt was made by John Farrell in the Oct 30, 2012 edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books to untangle the English translations and sort them for clarity and poetry. Those of us who love this work will read all the versions, especially the fascinating introductions to each in which the translators themselves wax eloquent about what they loved about it. Mitchell's introduction is especially accessible and impelling: I couldn't wait to get to the story.

I have read reviews of people who prefer Lattimore, Fagles, Fitzgerald, or Lombardo translations and all I can say is I’m not the one to quibble about great works. Daniel Mendelsohn "graded" four translations in the article discussing Mitchell's translation. It must be a curse and a blessing both (for one's self and one’s family both) to understand ancient Greek and to feel the desire to translate Homer. All the questions any editor/translator must address, e.g., spelling, which edition is ‘original,’ more poetry or prose, whether to render the translation literally or by sense…how exhausting the decisions, but how fantastically exciting, too.
In the end, whichever edition gives you the greatest access for your first attempt to breach the ramparts of this ancient work is the one to choose for a first read. The other editions will naturally come later, once you have the sense of the story, a few names nailed down, and have that deepening curiosity about the poetry and the beauty.

One last observation is that the men in this epic were mere playthings of the gods, gods that could be cruel, petty, jealous, and vengeful. These gods were helpful to individual men or women insofar as it helped their cause vis à vis other gods. There was striving among men, but most of the time human successes or failures had less to do with who they were than with who they knew. Was it ever thus.

※ Mitchell: Paperback, 560 pgs, Pub Aug 14th 2012 by Atria Books (first published -750), Orig Title Ἰλιάς, ISBN13: 9781439163382; Audio Pub: Simon & Schuster Audio, 10/11/2011, Unabridged, ISBN-13:9781442347311

※ Green: Paperback, 544 pgs, Pub May 14 2015 by University of California Press, ISBN13: 9780520281431

※ Alexander: Paperback, 608 pgs, Pub Sept 13 2016 by Ecco, ISBN13: 9780062046284

※ Fagles: Paperback, Deluxe Edition, 683 pgs, Pub Apr 29 1999 by Penguin Books, ISBN13: 9780140275360

※ Fitzgerald: Paperback, 588 pgs, Pub Jan 2 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374529055

※ Lombardo: Paperback, 574 pgs, Pub Mar 12th 1997 by Hackett Pub Co, Inc., ISBN13: 9780872203525

※ Lattimore: Paperback, 599 pgs, Pub Nov 15th 2011 by University Of Chicago Press, ISBN13: 9780226470498

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Blankets: A Graphic Novel by Craig Thompson

Paperback, 592 pgs, Pub Aug 18th 2003 by Top Shelf Productions (first published July 1st 2003), ISBN13: 9781891830433, Lit Awards: Harvey Awards for Best Graphic Album of Original Work, Best Artist (for Craig Thompson), & Best Cartoonist (for Craig Thompson) (2004), Salón Internacional del Cómic de Barcelona for Premio del público a la mejor obra extranjera (2005), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best Graphic Album–New (2004)

Wow. Every bit as earthshaking and meaningful as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, this graphic novel by Craig Thompson published in 2003 by Top Shelf is one thoughtful Americans do not want to miss. Christian evangelical notions of life on earth and what comes after are a huge part of the narrative of our nation. Even today when our population is more diverse than ever, the history of these core beliefs within our citizenry continue to affect the direction of our politics.

Teenagers instilled with these notions rarely have the intellectual wherewithal to question those received ideas. Paradoxically, perhaps because of those early teachings and the constraints of his upbringing, the author--the main character in this memoir--has the discipline and strength to look squarely at his life, the beliefs of his parents, and think again.

This graphic novel won two Eisner Awards, three Harvey Awards, and two Ignatz Awards in 2004 and a Prix de la critique for the French edition a year later. A strict Christian evangelical family raises two sons in rural Wisconsin; we watch the boys grow up from sleeping together in the same room/same bed they move to their own rooms, go to summer camp, get harassed at school, romance a girl.

Sometimes graphic novels get a few things right, like the artwork, or the pacing. In this case, Thompson seemed to get everything right. The growing up story is poignant and real and revealing about farm life in Wisconsin in a close-knit religious family. Craig goes to visit his girlfriend Raina who lives in the snowiest city in the contiguous United States, in the Upper Peninsula of far north Michigan....in winter. We are treated to Raina's home life as well, another Christian family who struggles under enormous pressures.

Graphic novels are especially impressive because they must portray characters from an endless array of angles, and in this case, we recognize a character as he grows over a period of years. Moreover, we are feeling that character struggle with the promises and constraints of his religion and the actual manifestation of those teachings that he can see. When Craig’s pastor suggests he consider a religious calling, Craig seriously contemplates the idea.

The graphic novel drops into lower gear here and we see the quality of the intellect behind the work. Craig’s thinking and research into the Bible is Jesuitical, deep and challenging, and he is left with too many unanswered questions and lingering doubts. Different mentorship probably would have produced a different result. This portion of the book is careful, allowing Craig to slip away, leaving the door to his family open, and conflict at bay.

Thompson’s drawing skill is exceptional and smart, unmistakably capturing movement from life. The group scenes are especially exciting; for example, he might draw a high school cafeteria with many tables of students doing all manner of shenanigans. It is Bruegel, in ink. Thompson didn’t hold back on this book: it is 582 pages, not including the credits. He took the time to draw out his religious questioning and didn’t rush us through his moments of insight and revelation.

I especially appreciated the belly laughs he led us to near the end of the memoir when some of the church elders in his hometown warned Craig not to consider going to art school, lest it lead him to sin. Our hearts nearly break with what the teen will miss if he doesn’t follow his passion, but again he manages to avoid confrontation while following his dreams.

Thompson has continued his remarkable success, and in 2011 Pantheon Books published Habibi, a book Thompson had begun working on in 2004 after traveling in Europe for a time. Influenced by Arabic calligraphy and Islamic mythology, Thompson tells us  "I'm playing with Islam in the same way I was playing with Christianity in Blankets.” [Wiki].

Below I have posted two videos of Thompson demonstrating and discussing his work. The first is short and covers his childhood and all books. The second is a 56 minute interview, with slides, of Thompson discussing Habibi. This man completely knocks me out; I am wowed by his work, and the depth and scope of his intellect. Highly recommended.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Hardcover, 249 pgs, Pub June 1st 2017 by Bloomsbury Circus, ISBN13: 9781408870556, Lit Awards: The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2017)

Reni Eddo-Lodge no longer wants to talk to white people about race because white people always manage to make the conversation about themselves. Isn’t this the original definition of a bore? This would actually be funny if it didn’t have such deadly consequences for people of color everywhere.
“Discussing racism is not the same thing as discussing ‘black identity.’ Discussing racism is about discussing white identity. It’s about white anxiety.”
Eddo-Lodge is British and this book evolved from an explosive blogpost of the same title that she wrote in 2014 and which is reproduced in full in the Preface to this volume. Contrary to her explicit desire to stop talking to white people about race, she has become a national and international spokesperson and spends most of her time talking to white people about race. Is there a lesson here?

Eddo-Lodge divides her commentary on the subject of race into seven chapters, the first of which, “Histories,” details her awakening to the realization that she knew very little about black British history until her second year at university. That moment of awakening, the moment Ta-Nehisi Coates also details in his own book, Between the World and Me, is a thrilling one in the life of an writer/activist. After that moment comes the hard work of study and making connections.
“We tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist…We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.”
Chapter 2, “The System,” tries to describe the way racism looks today from the point of view of those discriminated against in Britain, and the excuses made to paper over any actual discussion of the problems. This is where the insistence upon merit and the way the conversation always turns to white anxiety is most apparent. Chapter 3, “What is White Privilege?” surprises us with the assertion that
“White privilege is never more pronounced than in our intimate relationships, our close friendships and our families… Race consciousness is not contagious, nor is it inherited. If anything, an increase in mixed-race families and mixed-race children brings those difficult conversations about race and whiteness and privilege close to home (literally) than ever before.”
I’d always assumed that mixed race families had the advantages of understanding around issues of race, but Eddo-Lodge tells us that many families are not having the conversations they need to have, difficult and raw though they may be.
“It makes sense that interracial couples might not want to burden themselves with the depressing weight of racial history when planning their lives together, but a color-blind approach makes life difficult for children who do not deserve this carelessness.”
There is so much in this short book that I have to urge everyone to get their own copy. The insights come fast and furious from this point on. For some white people, Eddo-Lodge asserts, “being accused of racism is far worse than actual racism.” That resonates in today’s America, and could as easily be said about sexism. When addressing feminism and racism in Chapter 5, "The Feminism Question," Eddo-Lodge may present her most eloquent arguments, including a discussion about the need for black feminists to meet separately:
that [white gaze] “does so much to silence you...And there's an element of just speaking the truth of what it means to be a black woman in the UK that it would be ridiculous, as a white person, to not read that as implicating you."
In direct relationship to the cogency of her arguments, her shortest chapters are the most fluent, insightful, and well-argued. At the end, Eddo-Lodge uses a Terry Pratchett statement as her final chapter heading: "There is No Justice, There is Just Us." In this chapter she reflects our questions right back out at her audience.
“White people, you need to talk to other white people about race….white people who recognize racism have an incredibly important part to play. That part can’t be played while wallowing in guilt.”
Apropos of this exhortation, a racial justice educator based in Boston, Debby Irving, wrote a book on race primarily for white people, called Waking Up White, detailing her experiences waking up to an unconscious racism. I agree with her that we need to learn to speak this new vocabulary of race if we want to enjoy the benefits of diversity. Eddo-Lodge, despite her exhaustion talking about race with white people, is doing her part.

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Monday, January 8, 2018

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald

Hardcover, 96 pgs, Pub Aug 23rd 2016 by W. W. Norton Company (first published July 7th 2016), ISBN13: 9780393285284, Lit Awards: Costa Book Award for Poetry (2016), T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry Nominee (2016), Forward Prize Nominee for Best Collection (2016), Griffin Poetry Prize Nominee for International Shortlist (2017)

I have a new favorite poet and and I can’t stop thinking about her work. But you have to hear her speak the work to get the full impact so therefore below I have attached a video of Oswald reading the first poem in this 2016 collection, called "A Short Story on Falling."

I have learned that this appears to be Oswald's ninth book of poetry, and that her second book, Dart, won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2002. According to her wiki, Oswald "is a British poet from Reading, Berkshire. Her work won the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2002 and the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017. In September 2017, she was named as BBC Radio 4's second Poet-in-Residence." It is absurd to fall in love with language again, but here I am, helpless in her hands.

Her visualizations are unforgettable. In "You Must Never Sleep Under a Magnolia," we learn of "shriek-mouthed blooms" and the first flowering like a glimpse of flesh. And what of
Old scrap-iron foxgloves
rusty rods of the broken woods

what a faded knocked-out stiffness
as if you'd sprung from the horse-hair
of a whole Victorian sofa buried in the mud down there...
--from Evening Poem
Or what about "Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn" whose characterization of Tithonus reminds us of another babbling old man:
It is said the dawn fell in love with Tithonus
and asked Zeus to make him immortal, but forgot
to ask that he should not grow old. Unable to die,
he grew older and older until at last the dawn
locked him in a room where he still sits babbling
to himself and waiting night after night for her appearance.
As it happens, just when I discovered this unbeatable voice, I learn that she and another newly discovered favorite author, Kei Miller, will be speaking together, in a month, at the same venue in England, as part of the Bath Spa Poetry Series:

It is enough to bring the dead to life. What I wouldn't give to hear these two... ♬♪ If I were a rich man ♬♫

Listen to Oswald reciting her poem, "A Short Story on Falling," from memory:

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Memorial: A Version of Homer's Iliad by Alice Oswald

Hardcover, 112 pgs, Pub Sept 10th 2012 by W. W. Norton Company (first published October 6th 2011), ISBN13: 9780393088670, Lit Awards: Warwick Prize for Writing (2013), T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry Nominee (2011), Popescu Prize for translation (2013)

The poetry of Alice Oswald is preternatural…preternaturally gorgeous, preternaturally immediate and relevant and precise. We want to sink into that language and be in that bright place—perhaps not to live (among the flashing swords), but to die there, amongst one’s brethren, with poetry read and songs sung in one’s honor.

Everything about this book is beautiful, and new and bright and contemporary. The Afterword written by Eavan Boland answers all the questions one has while reading this wholly original poem, this ‘oral cemetery’ memorializing the men who fought the Trojan War. I am tempted to suggest you read the Afterword first, but no, of course you must proceed directly to the glory that is the language exploring the feel of the Iliad, a story with so many deaths, so many deaths of young and old and brave and foolish and handsome men.
EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit Lycia
Climbed the Greek wall remembering the river
That winds between his wheat fields and his vineyards
He was knocked backwards by a rock
And sank like a diver
The light in his face went out…

…Even AMPHIMACHOS died and he was a rarity
A green-eyed changeable man from Elis
He was related to Poseidon
You would think the sea could do something
But it just lifted and flattened lifted and flattened.
Oswald gives the names she memorializes at the beginning of her work and then proceeds to tell in startlingly immediate language, how exactly they met their end, or some tiny biographical note that makes them, contrarily, come alive.
EUCHENOR a kind of suicide
Carried the darkness inside him of a dud choice
Either he could die at home of sickness
Or at Troy of a spear wound
His mother was in tears
His father was in tears but
Cold as a coin he took the second option…
The ancient critics of the Iliad praised its ‘enargeia,’ or ‘bright unbearable reality.’ And that is exactly how we perceive the language Oswald gives us: all the bright young brave men, all dead.
ECHEPOLUS a perfect fighter
Always ahead of his men
Known for his cold seed-like concentration
Moving out and out among the spears
Died at the hands of Antilochus
You can see the hole in the helmet just under the ridge
Where the point of the blade passed through
And stuck in his forehead
Letting the darkness leak down over his eyes.
Oswald strips the narrative from the oral tradition and gives us a kind of lament poetry aimed at translucence rather than translation. She wants to help us see through to what Homer was looking at. But the context is remarkably unnecessary. It is about young men at war. We understand immediately, sadly.
And IPHITUS who was born in the snow
Between two tumbling trout-stocked rivers
Died on the flat dust
The poetry of war. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking.

Alice Oswald reads a portion of Memorial

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Green: A Novel by Sam Graham-Felsen

Hardcover, 320 pgs, Pub Jan 2nd 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780399591143

One reason this debut novel succeeds so very well are the layers. It can be enjoyed by teens but just as well by adults. Race, religion, ethnicity, family dynamics, growing up, sexual awakenings, being harassed, winning admiration, feeling out of place, making friends and losing them…all these things are eloquently addressed in the hip hop slang of a white boy trying to fit in a primarily minority school in Boston. He is twelve and on the cusp.

Graham-Felsen gets the awkwardness and uncertainty of twelve just right. The time is 1990s Boston before the explosion of high-speed internet and we are treated to the excruciatingly slow process of downloading color jpegs, presumably from dial-up modems. The segregation in Boston schools does not feel so distant, however. The white-black friendship between David and Marlon, our narrator and a boy in his class, always feels a bit tentative and unsure, just like the boys themselves.

On an ordinary day, most of us might not be rapt listening to the thoughts of a twelve-year-old for nearly three hundred pages, but David’s jive language adds a layer of complexity to the picture that completely works. We understand that he uses this language with his friends and peers and not with his parents, two Harvard-educated hippies now living with their two sons in Jamaica Plain. The Arnold Arboretum, one of the largest collection of plant species from around the world, is part of David’s walk to his ‘ghetto’ school so that he can avoid the housing projects where he has been harassed.

Everything about the setting, the characters, the situations ring true. Dave’s parents believe in public schools so they won't consider a private school for David but instead encourage him to win a place at Boston Latin, the best public school in the city for grades 7-12. Dave and Marlon both have their sights set on Harvard because of the money they could make: just a look at the statistics for heads of corporations and heads of state tell them a Harvard degree is stone cold gold.

But Graham-Felsen adds the spice—that layering again—by having a teacher looking to show the boys what’s possible bring them to meet a city councilor who graduated Harvard and who has some pretty harsh things to say about the experience. The city councilor is black and knows that Harvard’s aura of success mostly works for whites but less well for people of color.

Another of Dave’s classmates, Jimmy, is Vietnamese and living in what Dave calls a real ghetto in Chinatown. One day Jimmy surreptitiously shows Dave a switchblade he’d brought to school; Dave considers getting a blade like it for his own protection, and so visits Jimmy’s ‘crib.’ This scene is painfully realistic and beautifully rendered. Jimmy knows there is practically no chance he will get into Boston Latin because of the quotas for Asian students. Reverse quotas.

All of this rich material is artfully mined by Graham-Felsen. It never feels heavy handed; the absurdity of the blond white boy speaking inner-city lingo just lightens the whole experience, even when we have reason to feel sadness, for example when considering that members of both Dave and Marlon’s families struggle with a mental illness diagnosis. Dave’s younger brother refuses to speak for a reason never revealed, and Marlon’s mother may be bipolar or schizophrenic. The families deal the best they can, both very differently, naturally.

The very best parts of the novel may be those sections that are not about being white, but are about being black: when Dave convinces Marlon to help clear snow to make some loot, most of Dave’s old customers don’t answer the door when Marlon rings the bell. Or the time the boys are invited to a party in a nice section of Jamaica Plain and are followed by a cop car as they walk. Or the times Marlon wants Dave to just figure it out why he does not want to get caught doing something even marginally illegal, or why he does not want to pick up recyclable cans at a Harvard reunion, or why he has never entered the gates at Arnold Arboretum despite the fact it is free to everyone, or why he doesn’t want to attend an exclusive arts camp in New Hampshire for the summer.

Finally I know the answer to the joke about what the whitest thing I ever did is. Everyone will have their own answers, and it is worth spending the time to figure out what your answer would be to this question. The novel is a triumph of noticing, of seeing color and speaking of it, as well as a paean to youth, to curiosity, to seeking, to becoming. I hope everyone gets a chance to weigh in on this one--it's a real conversation starter. Families can read it together. It’s a crossover novel on many levels.

Listening to this book is a terrific way to enjoy the language. Brilliantly read by Prentice Onayemi and published by Random House Audio, this book is available for Whispersync. The book is a fast read, and I moved between the two. Beaks & Geeks, a free Random House Soundcloud podcast, posted an interview with Graham-Felsen that is really worthwhile. Graham-Felsen also wrote a short piece for Lit Hub that is worth a glance.

Below please find a short PRH Open Book Event YouTube video by Sam Graham-Felsen about his background and the book. He is a magnetic speaker, and just as good on the page. Enjoy.

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Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure & The Importance of Imagination by J.K. Rowling

Hardcover, 74 pgs, Pub Apr 14th 2015 by Little, Brown & Co, ISBN13: 9780316369152

This commencement speech was originally given in 2008 at Harvard, and it was not lost on Rowling that the people she spoke to had lives that were perceived by the outside world as every bit as magical as Harry Potter’s.

That may be why she focused on failure, a thing Harvard graduates may not be expected to know enough about, and imagination, which she credits with making the world a better place. Utter abject romantic and financial failure after her graduation with a Classics degree taught her what resources she had inside that failure could not destroy, but paradoxically could set free. And Rowling tells us that imagination has to do with empathy—imagining worlds we have not lived—and how critical that is for a world in which we want to live.

Rowling was eloquent on the subject of her first paying job at Amnesty International in London where she learned that terrific and terrible evil can exist, and how empathy can allow our indignation and refusal to submit to surface. Those who refuse to see the burdens under which others struggle can collude with evil through apathy, without ever committing an evil act themselves.

University-educated young people will have some idea of the world outside their doors and will be able to conceive of solutions for the very difficult problems that plague us. In a way, Rowling’s speech would be best widely read outside of Harvard’s yard, among those folks who are fearful of what is to come and who are not sure they have the mental strength and intellectual resources to meet future challenges they cannot even imagine.

One of the things that those attending Harvard are expected to understand and to internalize is competition. And yet, our success in the world—the success OF the world—may depend on cooperation. What worries me more than a few Harvard graduates escaping those hallowed walls thinking they just want to claw their way to the top of the heap are the people who have begun to disparage education, learning, empathy, compassion, and self-knowledge. This is the far greater danger, the looking backward, the denial of science, of imagination. Rowling says
“We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Sweat: A Play by Lynn Nottage

Paperback, 1st Edition , 125 pgs, Pub May 16th 2017 by Theatre Communications Group, ISBN13: 9781559365321, Lit Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2017), Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (2016)

Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play Sweat is set in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, and shines a light on the once-unionized manufacturing base of America’s industrial engine, once corporations moved operations abroad. The play closed on Broadway in June 2017 after a successful run off-Broadway and around the country.

Reading, Pennsylvania, I read somewhere, had one of the fastest de-industrializations and became one of the poorest cities in America. Factories did not give advance notice of their closings, but overnight moved equipment overseas and locked their doors. Workers and management--with mortgages, loans, lives--were just plum out of luck.

Nottage shows us a period of eight years at the beginning of the new century when rumors swirled about closing down some of the factory lines—like they perennially did. But the management team was still hiring, and even pulled an African American woman up from the line to give a visual--some sense of upward momentum and overlap between the workers and the higher ups.

Then came the screws: shorter hours, lower pay—a forty percent pay cut—or nothing. Advertisements written in Spanish lured strike breakers while the union held firm.

Eight years later everything has changed. The factory has closed and the workers we’d seen at the start are battling various addictions—alcohol and opioids…the usual. The woman who had moved into management had several menial jobs, altogether not paying what she’d made before.

I especially liked the way Nottage placed familiar points of view or attitudes in the mouths of her characters. The bartender Stan asks a question many have asked: Why don’t you leave this beat-up town where you have only a history and no future?
“Sometimes I think we forget that we're meant to pick up and go when the well runs dry. Our ancestors knew that. You stay put for too long, you get weighed down by things, things you don’t need…Then your life becomes the pathetic accumulation of stuff. Emotional and physical junk….
The level of confusion and desperation in this work turns the screws on viewers very effectively, but Nottage gets the rough language and behaviors exactly right. A kind of desperate race rage, though never spoken, is palpable. Then there is the open spoken rage against the corporation, against the machine, against the scabs…against the bartender, or anyone, anything in the way. A young immigrant does get in the way…

A poem by Langston Hughes is epigraph to this play, and it seems especially appropriate in these times:
“O, yes
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers,
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Langston Hughes
Note Hughes does not say Make America Great Again, but just make it again, live up to the principles upon which it was founded. It is less than that now.

Nottage previously won a Pulitzer for Ruined, a play originally conceived as a Bertolt Brecht Mother Courage adaptation and set in a brothel-bar in the Congo. Both sides of Congo’s post-colonialist civil war, soldiers and rebels, choose their night’s pleasure from among the same prostitutes. The more Nottage understood through interviews the horrors of what happened there, the less she could apply the Brecht template and instead created a wholly original work.

Pick up or go see one of her plays--she is among our finest artists at work today.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Five-Carat Soul by James McBride

Hardcover, 320 pgs, Pub Sept 26th 2017 by Riverhead Books, ISBN13: 9780735216693, Lit Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2018)

On his website James McBride has a short biographical video in which he talks about his mother, his music, and his writing. Every one of the twelve kids in his New York City family growing up played music and read books. McBride himself plays saxophone, and played in a traveling band while writing his first book, The Color of Water. McBride says "we’re all the same…there’s none of that black and white stuff when one gets to the nursing homes…they’re all just happy their body parts are still functioning." That may well be, but please let’s not wait that long to get past race.

McBride’s yarn-spinning tone is in full voice right from the first story, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” where we learn about the fabulously valuable toy railroad set made for General Robert E. Lee’s five-year-old son Graham by Horace Smith, of Smith & Wesson fame. Rumors of the train set swirled for more than a century before a photograph of it appeared one day at the home of a seller of vintage toys living in Buck’s Country, Pennsylvania.

The very finest stories in this collection come at the end, including “Mr. P & The Wind,” a fable which really should be published as a stand-alone paperback storybook for adults with pen-and-ink drawings, like that of Chekov or Kipling at the end of the 19th Century. In this story, animals residing in a zoo discuss their lives before zoo-dom, what their real natures are like, and their understanding of reincarnation. One thing they’d learned very well in the zoo was that humans—the Smelly Ones—were able to kill expeditiously but they had little to no understanding of the Order of Life.

This piece ranks as a bedtime story for grownups, a just-long-enough, miraculously inoffensive and reassuring vehicle for dispensing wisdom and life experience, certainly exceeding the feel-good but ultimately empty bloviation of the Dr. Seuss book often gifted at graduations, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! The animals communicate in Thought Shapes which do not register to humans who have not learned the language. In this way, whales can communicate with lions and panthers, difficult and exciting though that is to comprehend. A Smelly One, Mr. P, learns to Thought Shape.

Four of the stories in this collection center around the five-and-a-half-member Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band, and we could see what they were learning from their neighborhood: Pig and Dirt were former members, Bunny, Dex, half-member Ray-Ray, Beanie, Goat, and Butter, our narrator. The time was different back then, when the band practiced over Mr. Woo’s grocery, before Mr. Woo killed “Buck Boy,” who had tried to rob him.

Then there was “Blub” the young man the band boys always thought was younger. He had a tender heart and was easily led, and ended up working a murder charge until Butter could tell the court a story about Blub back when he gave more love than he got, back when a girl with a cat could darn near break his heart. “It ain’t him,” Butter would testify. “They got the wrong man.”

In “The Moaning Bench” we get a whiff of the everlasting…the everlasting hellfire that awaits those who have not examined what it means to be penitent. In “The Christmas Dance” we review again the role of black soldiers in Italy during the Second World War. Two survivors of a horribly-ravaged regiment were surprised in a 1944 Christmas Day attack that took out most of their fellow soldiers. On Christmas Day every year they get together to dance, and to remember.

Two stories tell of Abraham Lincoln, whose difficult choices and grief binds him to us even now. “The Fish Man Angel” was my second favorite story in the collection. Lincoln’s loss is palpable as he curls up in the stable with his dead boy Wille’s favorite pony, sharing loneliness and warmth. From that vantage point he overhears the cruelty of one black man speaking to another and fixes that problem at least.

The second of the Lincoln stories, “Father Abe,” describes a young mixed-race orphan called Abe Lincoln seeking clarification about his parentage: surely if his name is the same as the president, wouldn’t that man would be his father? The 9th Louisiana Colored Infantry Regiment, briefly and exhaustedly paused in Richmond, VA near the end of the war, found Little Abe persistent in his demand to know which man was his father.

Stories like these seem designed to entrance even much-older children who have their own children. That’s the thing about McBride. His writing allows adults time to relax, to play a little. He feeds our credulous, childlike selves; we put aside his work to think on it a bit. McBride has a reservoir of humor and goodwill that saves his work from both despair and from too great an optimism.

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