Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Hardcover, 592 pgs, Pub Nov 7th 2017 by W. W. Norton Company (first published -795), Orig TitleὈδύσσεια, ISBN13: 9780393089059, Lit Awards: Audie Award for Audio Drama (2009), National Book Award Finalist for Translation (1968), Премія імені Максима Рильського (1979)

The first line in Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey, the first by a woman scholar, is “Tell me about a complicated man.” In an article by Wyatt Mason in the NYT late last year, Wilson tells us
“I could’ve said, ‘Tell me about a straying husband.’ And that’s a viable translation. That’s one of the things [the original language] says…[But] I want to be super responsible about my relationship to the Greek text. I want to be saying, after multiple different revisions: This is the best I can get toward the truth.”
Oh, the mind reels. This new translation by Emily Wilson reads swiftly, smoothly, and feels contemporary. This exciting new translation will surprise you, and send you to compare certain passages with earlier translations. In her Introduction, Wilson raises that issue of translation herself: How is it possible to have so many different translations, all of which could be considered “correct”?

Wilson reminds us what a ripping good yarn this story is, and removes any barriers to understanding. We can come to it with our current sensibility and find in it all kinds of foretelling and parallels with life today, and perhaps we even see the genesis of our own core morality, a morality that feels inexplicably learned. Perhaps the passed-down sense of right and wrong, of fairness and justice we read of here was learned through these early stories and lessons from the gods. Or are we interpreting the story to fit our sensibility?

These delicious questions operate in deep consciousness while we pleasure in learning more about that liar Odysseus, described again and again as wily, scheming, cunning, “his lies were like truth.” He learned how to bend the truth at his grandfather’s knee, we learn late in the telling, and the gods exploited that talent when they helped him out. It served him well, allowing him to confuse and evade captors throughout his ordeal, as well as keep his wife and father in the dark about his identity after his return until he could reveal the truth at a time of maximum impact.

There does inevitably come a time when people react cautiously to what is told them, even to the evidence their own eyes. The gods can cloud one’s understanding, and truth is suspected in every encounter. These words Penelope speaks:
"Please forgive me, do not keep
bearing a grudge because when I first saw you,
I would not welcome you immediately.
I felt a constant dread that some bad man
would fool me with his lies. There are so many
dishonest, clever men..."
Particularly easy to relate to today are descriptions of Penelope’s ungrateful suitors like Ctesippius, who "encouraged by extraordinary wealth, had come to court Odysseus’ wife." Also speaking insight for us today are the phrases "Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight" and "Arms themselves can prompt a man to use them."

There is a conflicted view of women in this story: "Sex sways all women’s minds, even the best of them," though Penelope is a paragon of virtue, managing to avoid temptation through her own duplicitousness. She hardly seems a victim at all in this reading, merely an unwilling captor. She is strong, smart, loyal, generous, and brave, all the qualities any man would want for his wife.

We understand the slave girls that Odysseus felt he had to “test” for loyalty were at the disposal of the ungrateful suitors who, after they ate and drank at Penelope's expense, often met the house girls after hours. Some of the girls appeared to go willingly, laughing and teasing as they went, and were outspoken about their support of the men they’d taken up with. Others, we get the impression from the text, felt they had no choice.

Race is not mentioned but once in this book, very matter-of-factly, though the darker man is a servant to the lighter one:
"…[Odysseus] had a valet with him,
I do remember, named Eurybates,
a man a little older than himself,
who had black skin, round shoulders, woolly hair,
and was [Odysseus's] favorite our of all his crew
because his mind matched his."
Odysseus’ tribulations are terrible, but appear to be brought on by his own stubborn and petulant nature, like his taunting of the blinded Cyclops from his own escaping ship. Cyclops was Poseidon’s son so the behavior was especially unwise, particularly since Odysseus’s men were yelling at him to stop. Later, that betrayal of the men’s best interests for his own childish purpose will come back to haunt Odysseus when the men suspect him of thinking only of himself--greediness--and unleash terrible winds by accident, blowing them tragically off course in rugged seas.

We watch, fascinated, as the gods seriously mess Odysseus about, and then come to his aid. One really gets the sense of the gods playing, as in Athena’s willingness to give Odysseus strength and arms when fighting the suitors in his house, but being unwilling to actually step in to help with the fighting. Instead, she watched from the rafters. It’s hard not to be just a little resentful.

Wilson’s translation reads very fast and very clearly. There always seemed to be some ramp-up time reading Greek myths in the past, but now the adventures appear perfectly accessible. Granted, there are some names you’ll have to figure out, but that’s part of being “constructively lost,” as Pynchon has said.

A book-by-book reading of this new translation will begin March 1st on the Goodreads website, hosted by Kris Rabberman, Wilson’s colleague at the University of Pennsylvania. To prepare for the first online discussion later this week, Kris has suggested participants read the Introduction. If interested readers are still not entirely convinced they want this literary experience now, some excerpts have been reprinted in The Paris Review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, February 23, 2018

Good Night Stories about Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Hardcover, 212 pgs, Pub Dec 1st 2016 by Timbuktu Labs, Orig Title: Storie della buonanotte per bambine ribelli: 100 vite di donne straordinarie, ISBN13: 9780997895810, Series: Storie della buonanotte per bambine ribelli #1, Lit AwardsWaterstones Book of the Year Nominee (2017)

The subtitle of this collection is 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women, and it is beautifully done. The short passages cover every continent and every race, religion, and sexuality…that is, the stories are about girls and women with lesbians and transgender individuals identifying as female included. It is ravishingly interesting.

Each short passage is a tightly written biography suitable for 9-14 year-olds, informative, and inspiring. Many unusual job descriptions and lifelong purpose are described, expanding our horizons about the scope of what is possible. As an adult, I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did nor enjoy it as much.

This book is about rebels. It challenges us to think again about what we admire and what we don't...and why. It is a fantastic teaching tool. I can imagine a mother reading an entry alongside her preteen (of either sex, by the way) and discussing it for a short while so that the implications of each success sink in: "Why would that person be considered a rebel?" "What do you think about what that person did?" "Do you know anyone who has done things like this?" The mother is going to recognize some of the names and so can add whatever backstory is not in the book.

A few examples from the stories are
✦ Inventor Ann Makosinski, a fifteen year-old Canadian who won first prize in Google Science Fair for inventing a flashlight that doesn’t need batteries, wind, or sun--just body heat.
✦ Amna Al Haddad, weight lifter from the United Arab Emirates. She was a journalist and discovered she really enjoyed exercising! She began to work out in a gym with weights for the first time in her life as an adult. She was good at it and began training for the Olympics.
✦ Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who was murdered for reporting on the truth of what she saw in the brutal civil war in Chechnya.
✦ Jane Goodall is among the women to emulate for having her own mind and studying a subject so deeply that she became the expert.
✦ Hayshepsut was an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled Egypt long before Cleopatra became Queen. Records of her were destroyed after her death, but archeologists were able to piece together a record of her successful rule, the first (and only?) female pharaoh.
Included with each biography is a full page color representation of the subject, and a quote of something they said or wrote. Next to the short bio of Misty Copeland, for instance, is a drawing of her in flight during a ballet performance with a quote that reads, “Dance found me.”

The authors, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, studied in Italy and the United States where they founded Timbuktu Labs, a children’s media innovation lab. What’s that? you may well ask. The authors define the mission of Timbuktu as committed to “redefining the boundaries of children’s media through a combination of thought-provoking content, stellar design, and cutting-edge technology.” They designed the first iPad magazine for children. The start-up has created mobile apps and creative content for users in more than 70 countries.

It’s more than just new. It’s exciting. The first edition of this book was published in 2016. Since then it has gone through multiple reprintings, and in 2017 Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 was published. There are apparently also coloring books, temporary tattoos, and posters that go along with the books and can be purchased separately. It’s become an industry, with good reason. If you have a girl in the family in the target age range, check it out. Just when you thought your girls were too old for bedtime stories, this may bring it all back.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub by Riverhead Books (first published January 23rd 1996), ISBN13: 9781573220224, Lit Awards: Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1997)

I never read this book when it was first published in 1996, but it was required reading in the high school of the town where I lived after publication. In fact, I have the Tenth Anniversary edition of this book and in the Afterword, McBridge tell us by the tenth anniversary over two million copies had sold worldwide, translated into more than twenty languages, serialized in the New York Times, and studied by thousands of students each year in literature, sociology, history and creative writing classes.

What strikes me now, reading it twenty-two years later, is the parallel between James McBride’s white mother and Trevor Noah’s black one. Both women crossed race lines romantically and tried to give their mixed children the best possible education within their reach. The kids didn’t take advantage in the ways their mothers had hoped, but the love the mothers had for their children did magic and something about the striving stuck. iIn his Afterword McBride tells us that may be the reason the work resonated so widely: more families than not have some mix somewhere in their family trees, and they relate strongly to this history. Details change but the basic struggle remains the same.

McBride, along with his eleven brothers and sisters, is multi-talented. Everyone in the family learned to play an instrument or sing, tell stories or draw. James’ special skills are telling a story and playing music, and all his life he moved between the two, getting hired and leaving one or the other, then starting a new book and playing music for diversity and cash. It is fascinating to me that kind of rounded life always seemed enough for him; he didn’t get caught in the racket of making money for its own sake.

One sister, Helen, left home early and precipitously. The kind of rough-and-tumble upbringing the family experienced doesn't work for everyone. Some of us are simply more sensitive and require a softer hand. It can be traumatic to be in such a large, rambunctious group, whatever James' experience was. At least he noticed, and mentioned it.

Since most of you reading this will be familiar with this book, I will just quickly point out a few things I admired. His process of getting the story from his mother was kind of ingenious. Plenty of families will have the experience of bumping up against their parents desire to keep some areas of their life private, with the result that the whole doesn’t make as much sense as it should. If I am not mistaken, McBride worked on this story for fifteen years at least, or at least he dreamed about working on it. He had a job working for the Boston Globe right out of college when a Mother’s Day piece he wrote ran to huge acclaim. To expand it, he had to convince his mother to tell her story…but it was years and years before she dropped the last veils.

Ruthie, or Rachel as she was known growing up, was unhappy about leaving her own family, but realized she had no other option. It must have been such a wrenching experience for everyone, that time of giving an ultimatum and having it accepted. But Ruthie was looking forward to living with black people because “they did not judge.” She apparently never changed her mind about that.

When McBride left on a Greyhound for Oberlin at seventeen, his mother accompanied him to the station. He’d been some trouble in high school, acting out and skipping school, playing music but also hanging around with an iffy crowd. His mother was very glad he’d found a place that would take him with his poor grades, and he’d won a scholarship to boot. She had to give him up and though she stood strong through the goodbye kisses and hugs, she broke down crying just around the corner of the building as the bus took off.

Yes, the book could be studied for lots of reasons, but it is a great example of how to write a memoir that doesn’t feel past. It feels as though it is all happening now, or close enough to it to still have fragments of the past showing up in the present. I wonder about that…how he did that, what he was thinking, what the struggle was, and whether or not it was heavily directed by an editor. I don’t think it was, actually, because no one could come up with that kind of structure without it being integral to the material and the creation process.

But McBride does this kind of brilliant sleight of hand in his other works as well. And reading this has given me some insight into the John Brown character he drew for us in National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. McBride’s narrator Onion appeared to have a real affection for Brown, despite recognizing the man was bonkers. He wasn’t condescending. I couldn’t quite figure that out when I read it the first time. I think I might get it now.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Winter by Ali Smith (Seasonal #2)

Hardcover, 336 pgs, Pub Jan 9th 2018 by Pantheon Books (first published November 2nd 2017), ISBN13: 9781101870754, Series: Seasonal #2

Ali Smith wrote this book fast, and I think that is how she intends us to read it, at least at first. We slow down when her images and meanings start to coalesce on the page and we suspect there is much more to this than the twitter-like, depthless sentences that don’t seem like they are adding up to anything. Afterwards, an image emerges. What is more suited to tweeting than a Canada warbler?

The story, as such, is that a young man breaks up with his girlfriend Charlotte right before a Christmas he’d wanted to bring her to his mum’s house to introduce her to his mother. He finds a substitute girl, who happens to be waiting at a bus stop, rather than go through the humiliation of saying he no longer had a girlfriend. He pays her—Lux she is called, though he’d never asked—to stay the three days of the holiday.

Art grew in the course of this book into a grander vision of himself. He writes about nature, the churn of seasons, in a blog he calls Art in Nature. Though he rarely writes anything political, he is thinking about making his work a little more political, like the “natural unity in seeming disunity” of snow and wind, “the give and take of water molecules,” and “the communal nature of the snowflake.” He, Art, is not dead at all, though he is being crushed by his ex-girlfriend Charlotte on Twitter.

Charlotte is pretty clear-eyed:
The people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote, she said, and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one…the people in power were self-servers who’d no idea about and felt no responsibility towards history…like plastic carrier bags…damaging to the environment for years and years after they’ve outgrown their use. Damage for generations.
Plastic carrier bags? This is where Smith shines, making her argument so clear and relatable and yet so absurd. She’s funny. She’s right and wrong at the same time, like most of us. Like Art. Smith draws environmental degradation, suggesting chemical (nuclear?) drift in the air can settle like snow, like ash, like slow poison on our lives. She compares the influx of refugees fleeing for their lives in the Mediterranean to exhausted holidaymakers using their friends’ recommendations on the ‘best places to stay.’

Many images float around this book, inviting us to make connections: Iris-eye, art-Art, stone with a hole in it-eye, stone with the weight and curvature of a breast-Mother Nature…once we begin, we start looking for these parallels everywhere. Lux— she had some kind of luxurious brain, a luxurious education studying what she wanted (like Shakespeare, violin, human nature), and the luxury of floating through the world unencumbered and unafraid.

Lux is an out-of-body experience, an angel who appears and disappears, a Canada warbler blown off course. Lux is grace. Lux brings the two sisters together and reminds them of their shared history, of love, of the importance of struggling to create bonds. Lux tries to convince Art to stay after the three-day Christmas holiday to talk, late at night, to his mother. At first he refuses, but when Lux says she will help, he looks forward to it.

Soph, Art’s mother, is not crazy but prescient, depressed, and old. The word Sophia in ancient Greek and early Christian times meant wisdom, and clever, able, intelligent. Iris, the sister from whom Soph was estranged, is not a religious do-gooder but is targeting critical needs to save what’s best of the human race. She is named for Iris, the Wind-Footed Messenger of the Gods. Her presence signifies hope.

Smith is also concerned with truth, and at some point Lux points to the notion that the truth of a thing may be confused with what we believe to be true. Is there objective truth? This question has been argued since time immemorial. It is back with a vengeance, and must be adjudicated daily, moment-by-moment within each of us.

Art in Nature continues to exhibit itself throughout the novel: a female British MP is barked at by the grandson of Winston Churchill, who is also an MP. He says it was meant as a friendly greeting, she accepts the non-apology. Smith interprets this incident as snow melting on one side of furrowed ground in slanted winter sun. It turns out the stuff Art writes in his blog material is invented. Lies, one could say, but close enough to real to sound remembered. This novel has a lot to do with art and politics and what the difference is between them.

Iris writes
& th diff dear Neph is more betwn artist and politician—endlss enemies coz they both knw THE HUMAN will alwys srface in art no mtter its politics, & THE HUMAN wll hv t be absent or repressed in mst politics no mtter its art x Ire
Ali Smith—and this is only the second novel of hers I have read—is a skilled interpreter of our lives. She is involved in the struggle with us, and has enough understanding to recognize #MeToo began with the Access Hollywood tape; the rest, on both sides of the Atlantic and around the globe, is fallout. She doesn’t want us to lose hope, but recognizes the route to betterment is long and arduous, which is why she occasionally blows a Canada warbler off course in the middle of winter to thrill us with what is possible.

I note Recorded Books and narrator Melody Grove won Audiofile Magazine's coveted Earphones Award for "conveying every nuance in the second movement of Ali Smith's Seasonal Quartet." Sounds like it would be a wonderful experience, to listen to this marvelous book speaking of a very dark time in all our lives.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, February 19, 2018

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Hardcover, 248 pgs, Pub Jan 16th 2018 by Seal Press, ISBN13: 9781580056779

People of every race are going to read this book—at least I hope they are. It is not written just for people still denying that racism exists in America today, but for people who know it does but do not recognize the myriad ways it manifests. Oluo writes so clearly and simply, this book just a pleasure to read, despite addressing emotionally sensitive material. It is so well-conceived and executed that one could conceivably use it for group discussion, one or two chapters a meeting, talking over what she has presented.

Those discussions can be within one's own group, and need not include people outside of one's race unless they want to be there, e.g. white people should be talking to white people. We have a lot to discover about ourselves, our culture, how our political and economic systems affect racist ideas. She gives us the tools to begin that work, and suggests that we not make black people the sounding boards for our own anxieties—anxieties about how we are perceived, or mistakes we may have made or…whatever. It's not about us.

Oluo’s book builds on earlier books on this theme in the best way possible: You Can’t Touch My Hair by podcaster Phoebe Robinson, and Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, were both enormously helpful in raising some of the issues Oluo addresses with such clarity. Oluo organizes the material so that we are focused on behaviors or questions we will recognize if we have thought about these issues at all, such as "How do I talk to my mother about racist jokes she makes?" "Is police brutality really about race?" "What are microaggressions?" "Is it race or class that separates us?" "What is intersectionality?" "I was called out for being racist but I don’t know what I did wrong."

Oluo suggests ways to approach these questions, and tells us what is not okay. She says there are basic rules, which we might understand to be immutable rules:

--It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.

--It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.

--It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affects people of color.

While Oluo will concede that in the context of the points made above, “just about everything is about race…” Pause here. This is such a critical point that is too easily missed. White people do not generally talk about race, do not think about race because they are in a white supremacist society. Understand this to mean that white is privileged in our society, and until recently was the largest population group, using their own means of measuring “white.” White is a race, like other races. We just haven’t had to think about it as such.

Oluo goes on to say “…almost nothing is about race.” Pause again. That would be true also. Race doesn’t even show up genetically. White Americans have more genetic difference with other Europeans than we do with Black Americans. It’s culture and context that rubs us differently. But Oluo goes through all this carefully, spending some time defining what racism is. She warns us that talking about race will make us uncomfortable. We need to forgive ourselves if we make mistakes, but we also have to forgive others who are trying to understand what they do not now understand.

“You’re going to screw this up,” Oluo tells us, but you can prepare, and try to lessen the amount of times you get it wrong. She helps by talking this out. This is not easy stuff. Racial justice activist Debby Irving agrees. Just when we think we understand what privilege is, we might discover we don’t know how to explain it, or give examples of it, or even recognize it immediately. We need to change something so basic as our vocabulary, and everyone who has learned a new language knows how hard that can be. Our behaviors are often habituated, learned when we were children, and some need to change. Change is hard, but not impossible.

Oluo sticks with the practical: ways she has lived with and uncovered her own lack of understanding around race--for instance, not making enough effort to understand what underlies the term Asian American. That particular chapter, “What is the model minority myth?” is enormously informative. We learn the large number of sub-groups fall under the category of Asian American, and how they are doing in our economy.

It seems hard to believe this book came out only a month ago, in January 2018. I am so thrilled there is such useful material now to help us with our own conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about race. I recommend buying this one. You will be grateful for this resource. You will probably need to refer to it again and again, or pass it around, when your conversations raise some of the questions Oluo deals with here.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Late Essays 2006-2017 by J.M. Coetzee

Hardcover, Pub Jan 2nd 2018 by Viking (first published 2017), ISBN13: 9780735223912

Coetzee is among my favorite Nobel Prize winners. There is a deep vein of humor in his work—so deep we may never break into overt laughter—but a vein that is fast and cold and refreshing. These essays are criticism for the work of others, and choosing the order from among the selections is a rare delight.

In Nemesis, one of a series of novels written by Philip Roth, Roth confronts the idea of a plague visited upon a city, in his case “the polio summer of Newark in 1944.” The reader is unsure for most of the novel who is writing. A voice belonging to Arnie is describing the life and inner thoughts of another person, a man called Bucky Cantor. "The novel is an artfully constructed and suspenseful novel with a cunning twist towards the end." Reading Coetzee read Roth is revelatory.

Another essay highlights my second encounter with the work of Heinrich von Kleist, whom another author I admire has called greater than Shakespeare. Heinrich von Kleist wrote in the early part of the 19th Century, and died by his own hand at age thirty-four. Von Kleist was a playwright foremost and wrote prose fiction for money, thinking it a very inferior art form. His “Michael Kohlhaas” story has lasted two centuries, lately resurrected every couple of years with new film treatments, i.e., The Jack Bull (1999), and Age of Uprising (2013). I understand that story is now considered a novella rather than a short story; I was able to discover it reprinted in Twelve German Novellas, translated and edited by Harry Steinhauer. Hopefully that's up next.

On the subject of Samuel Beckett, Coetzee breaks his musings into four separate essays, one concerned with the young Beckett, one on Watt, and one on Molloy. His final essay “Eight Ways of looking at Beckett” completes his examination. So thorough and intriguing are these essays, they could be used as the basis of a university course, with students reading Beckett (in the original French if possible) and Coetzee’s observations. Why did Beckett begin to write in French?
"Part of the answer must be that by 1946 it had become clear to him that France was and would in future be his home. Another part of the answer was that the French language was hospitable to a savage directness of tone that he wanted to cultivate."
What I find so intriguing about his analysis of Molloy is that Coetzee finds the soliloquy assigned to Molloy
"…is not the voice of an individual, a ‘character’ (in this case Molloy), but the communal voice of much of Beckett’s fiction from Molloy onwards. It is a voice that seems to echo, or take dictation from, another remoter and more mysterious voice… "
Coetzee moves on, sharing facts about fellow citizen Patrick White, who on most counts is considered
"…the greatest writer Australia has produced, though the sense in which Australia produced him needs at once to be qualified: he had his schooling in England, studied at Cambridge University, spent his twenties as a young man about town in London, and during the Second World War served with the British armed forces.”
Patrick White’s fiction was too difficult for me to grasp when I first encountered him, and I see in Coetzee’s discussion so many reasons why White escaped me. This delicious substantive critical analysis mixed with well-chosen highlights from the author’s biography is perfectly intelligible to someone not steeped in the tradition of criticism. White wrote of an adult world outside of my experience. I was more at the understanding level of his Kathy Volkov, a thirteen-year-old girl in The Vivisector, “for whom White draws—a little too closely at times—on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.”

Coetzee does not discuss the work of David Malouf (born 1934) or Thomas Keneally (born 1935) in this work, but does discuss the work of their contemporary of whom I have never heard, the so-called fiction writer, Gerald Murnane (born 1939). Murnane was of Irish Catholic descent and suffered for it. His work was apparently awash in self-criticism, uncertainty, fear, and lacked the standard features of novels. In his later years he admitted,
“I should never have tried to write fiction or non-fiction or anything in-between. I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces as essays.”
The extraordinary range of Coetzee's essays, covering writers from every continent over five centuries, is the least of its astonishments and delights. What we appreciate most is Coetzee’s deep reading and enlightened presentation, his enjoyment of untangling the mysteries of great and not-so-great writing, and the fact that not for a moment is he dismissive or forgetful of the ordinary human failures we all share.

All of the essays, edited from the originals, have been previously published, many in The New York Review of Books. Others are mostly excerpts of Introductions written for reprints of his subject’s work. In one of his essays on Patrick White, Coetzee discusses White’s insistence, before he died in 1990, that his unpublished papers be destroyed. They were not. Coetzee suggests authors who know their executors will not comply with their wishes do the deed themselves before they are too infirm. He has thought about his own legacy, I suppose. I wonder what he will choose to do.

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Woods etc. by Alice Oswald

Hardcover, 56 pgs, Pub May 5th 2015 by Faber & Faber (first published January 5th 2005), Orig TitleWoods Etc., ISBN13: 9780571218523 Lit Awards: T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry Nominee (2005), Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (2006)

If you have never fallen heart over head for a poet, you may not know the delight of reading a poem you want to memorize. I mean, what is a poet anyhow? Alice Oswald appears to be that thing, for me.
I was once a man. Very tired.
Very gone-inwards glaring outwards at the road.
His pusky eyes, his threadbare hair,
feet frozen in his boots, back sore.
from “Five Fables of a Length of Flesh”
This slim collection, called Woods etc. is so deceptive in its dark green cloth cover. The etc. is tacked on, but the book is certainly at least as much about that, the unspecified other.
This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties

like an old woman taken by the neck
and shaken to pieces

This is the dust-flower flitting away

This is the flower of amnesia.
It has opened its head to the wind,
all havoc and weakness…
from Head of a Dandelion
This book begins with the sea and ends with the stars. We move quickly from "oscillation endlessly shaken" to being airborne: "We are crowds of seabirds…we are screaming…" Not every poem has a tree but every poem has nature key.

The title poem begins mid-thought, and a title “Marginalia at the Edge of the Evening” glazes one’s eyes as we picture it. Then we come upon an alphabet primer in the form of a ballad with foot notes, called “Tree Ghosts,” written as a memorial to Clifford Harris, a lifelong forester at Dartington Woods, on the Dartington Estate in southern Devon, run through by the River Dart.

The River Dart
The River Dart

Oswald won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2002 for poems collected in a book called Dart. When I encountered Memorial, Oswald’s book interpreting Homer’s Iliad, the world I lived in subtly changed. A month and immersion into the ancients later, I learned that Oswald gave a memorized recitation of the book--the entire book--in Edinburgh. So began my thralldom. Her book Falling Awake, is similarly memorable.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Paperback, 80 pgs, Pub April 2001 by Fantagraphics (first published March 1998, ISBN13: 9781560974277

In one of his interviews, the great graphic novelist Craig Thompson cites Daniel Clowes as a must-read graphic artist he admires. I admire Thompson’s work, so it makes sense I would seek out Clowes. This graphic novel was made into a movie in 2001 starring Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson. I haven’t seen that yet, but it may well be the first sighting of Scarlett Johansson before big stardom.

A GR friend of mine wrote a deeply insightful meditation on the development of American cities in response to this work, going big in the face of adolescent alienation. As much as I enjoyed that piece, the book made a different impression on me. I’m going to go small: this is a novel of ideas that happen internally and out of sight. All we see is the petulance, the ripple on the surface of a psyche.

A young thin blond girl and a much edgier dark-haired friend who sports an aggressive haircut and heavy-framed glasses are nearing the end of high school. Contemplating their futures, the dark-haired girl wishes to become someone else. “I totally hate myself,” she cries late one night lying on the couch of a boy she’d just admitted she loved. Poor guy.

At that age we are both afraid of and jealous of the complexities adults wrestle every day; we want to try out our problem-handling skills to see if they can measure up. We want the next thing to happen so that we are not merely sitting ducks when it does. Desire for the world and fear of that same world mix unsteadily in our gut. We’re not ready, but when will we ever be?

The ideas shown in this graphic novel struck me as completely within the range of 'normal' adolescent angst, disaffection, confusion, and fear about the world and one’s role in it. We’re pretty obnoxious and self-absorbed at that age, as anyone with a teenager in the house will readily commiserate. Clowes actually plays it so low key we are as bored and unimpressed with their lives as the characters are.

My favorite frame comes near the end when the dark-haired girl is driving the hearse her father graciously bought for her to take to college. Despite having a vehicle and a direction, the girl says she is depressed: “Everything is all the same no matter where you go.” The Buddhists say it like this: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

The tricolor palette in this book works fine: black and white with a green wash. The pen drawings capture the sprawled-leg teenager-y postures, the trying-so-hard-to-be-cooler-than-thou clothing choices and the deliciously descriptive backgrounds absolutely fill in the picture. I thought Clowes was brave to take on the persona of a teenaged girl, but he caught that moment in the lifecycle of a female of the species perfectly.

This is another example, if we needed one, that the writing—including what isn’t said—is as important as the drawing in great graphic novels. So many things have to come together to make a great and lasting work. I admire the heck out of artists working in this medium and encourage anyone who hasn’t picked up a graphic novel lately to try one. It’s hard to read just one.

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The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window: A Play by Lorraine Hansberry

Hardcover, 204 pgs, Pub 1965 by Random House

How the world turns. Lorraine Hansberry’s second play featuring a loose gang of liberal strivers and losers who struggle to make their voices heard politically, just might be, if viewed through a reducing lens, the grudging voices of enlightened conservatives in a disintegrating GOP. A creative conservative playwright—if such a person existed (how would we know, there is no proof)—could adapt this quietly devastating but ultimately fierce and brave and humane play to reflect conservative’s acknowledgement that their adherents are composed of just this diverse band of individuals working together for governance that works within law and without corruption or favor.

It is Black History Month and PBS recently aired an American Masters special retrospective on the life of Lorraine Hansberry, playwright forever famous for her universally-loved play, A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry was friends with James Baldwin and Nina Simone, and suffered along with them the ignorance and backwardness of the stodgy thinking among white Americans, both liberals and conservatives, at the time.

Hansberry was only thirty-four years old when she died, shortly after her second play opened to mixed reviews on Broadway October 14, 1964 for one-hundred-and-one performances. Earlier that same year Hansberry had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she was struggling to write and revise the play through her disorientation and pain. Within a few short months of the October opening she would be dead, on January 12, 1965, and that day her play closed on Broadway for good.

When I picked this play up recently, I struggled with the 1960s-scent of it, despite its superficial relevance to now: a diverse and politically active group of people agitate to find, field, and elect the candidate of their choice in an important local election. Sounds like a play that could live forever, right? Hansberry’s instincts were so spot-on. My initial recoil from the datedness of the play began to change near the end of Act Two when things start to unravel for real, paying bare the true heart of things and the work’s universality. Act Three is icing on the cake. So it is that first act that was the problem all along, I guess.

The play has three acts and a cast of nine. Each of the characters seems to represent a larger group; there is a mixed race man, a prostitute, a gay man, a Jewish man, a Republican…you get the picture. Each of their difficulties in society needs addressing, and is the reason some of them band together politically to elect someone they believe will look after them. Each of the characters has high ideals but don’t necessarily treat others within their diverse group with the dignity they demand for themselves. The person they elect to represent them politically uses their support to get elected and then sells them out to monied interests.

The play could be a total bummer, but it is strangely lit from within by the naïve voice of a failed actress who, despite her lack of education and her inability to act, can see beyond what people say to what they do. She can see, for instance, that her husband cares more about helping people he doesn’t personally know rather than caring about the woman he is married to. To her he is dismissive, condescending, paternal. The mixed-race character has attitudes every bit as narrow, prejudiced, and cruel as those that had persecuted him his entire life. There is a supporter of Goldwater in the mix: she is intelligent, compassionate, and brave but also an anti-Semite and racist. In other words, people are complicated, and Hansberry allows us some time to digest that before suggesting we get up because we have work to do:
“Yes…weep now, darling, weep. Let us both weep. That is the first thing: to let ourselves feel again…Then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow…”
We can’t just lie around bemoaning our foolishness and inadequacies but must make something of the hurt it causes us.
“…people wanna be better than they are…and I hurt terribly today, and that hurt is desperation and desperation is—energy and energy can move things.”
I am not a believer in the conservative political or social platform. However, I am not wholly on board with liberal political groups either because they appear to be tone deaf and righteous and sometimes wrong. I believe the best solutions for government are often forged in the fire of differing opinions. We need a strong confident conservative voice in this country, not crazy far right closed-mindedness, to keep the left from blowing up their own side. Therefore I hope conservatives pull themselves together and remember what they believe.

The edition of this play I am reading has a Foreword written by a show-goer at the time the show played Broadway, John Braine, and an Introduction written by Hansberry’s former husband, the Jewish song writer Robert Nemiroff. I could not read these sections first—I had to go directly to the play, of course, or I wouldn’t know whereof they spoke. It is with some frustration I ask publishers to explain why these detailed examinations and discussions of the play are not placed at the end of the book in an Afterword or an Epilogue. That is where we want to read them. Those later sections are generally written by the play’s author, I realize, but convention sometimes needs to be shaken up. Anyway, I read them after the play and was glad for them.

Braine is convinced the play is a great one which was damned, not because of Act One which I have suggested, but because of the ending: the play acknowledges the inadequacies of each of the characters and does not condemn nor moralize. The affirmation and acceptance of man’s failures was its greatest sin, no matter that the idea was to do better tomorrow. Braine suggests a different age or a different country, perhaps, would find a public more at ease with what the brilliant and forward-thinking Hansberry had given us.

I felt similarly, my mind going directly to moderate conservatives who are being pushed around so they no longer know what they believe. Principled conservatives have gay people and black people and Jews in their ranks and somehow still manage to classify themselves as conservatives first. Hansberry’s friend James Baldwin tried to explain his ‘troubling ambivalence’ after seeing it—until he realized that what made him uncomfortable was Brustein’s ‘particular quality of commitment.’ In other words, Brustein continued to believe in commitment to our ideals, even when people let him down. For Baldwin, the play became an experience in soul-searching.

Ex-husband Nemiroff, for his part, thought the play brilliant, so full of ideas it couldn’t be easily classified or digested. Apparently the play’s only ‘rave’ review was from the Wall Street Journal correspondent: “…The taste left in the mouth after then final curtain is both bitter and good. For the playwright herself has taste, of the best kind.” But Hansberry never counted on plaudits. “…if there was one thing Lorraine Hansberry did not believe, it was that talent will ‘out’ in the end.” She herself thought the play was good, with lots of funny lines of which she was inordinately proud. Her life played out as tragedy, but she gave us comedy, and with that...responsibility.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Happiness in This Life by Pope Francis, translated by Oonagh Stransky

Hardcover, 272 pgs, Pub Dec 5th 2017 by Random House Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525510970, Edition Language: English

I don’t have anything against popes per se. It seems to me that some men are genuinely holy men, in that they have thought long and hard about life on earth and prefer the alternative: heaven. Pope Francis seems to have absorbed more than a few of the lessons taught in Christianity, and he is a good spokesperson. When he says he makes mistakes, we believe him.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis defended Bishop Juan Barros for being unaware of sexual abuse committed by his mentor, the Reverend Fernando Karadima, who was notorious and hated within Chile. Unfortunately, parishioners in Chile are not satisfied with the investigation that cleared Barros.

Bishop Juan Barros
Bishop Juan Barros

Pope Francis’ support for Barros could very well be one of those ‘mistakes’ the Pope speaks of. At first the pontiff seems to be sympathetic to the victims of abuse and then backs off, suggesting the Church is being scammed by ‘supposed’ victims. He must be getting information from internal sources.

If I were him, I would have to doubt internal sources at least as much as believers. After all, the Church has failed its believers badly in the past, with abuse of minors, corruption, graft, and lack of humility right at the top of the list of wrongs. It must be hard to be part of such a large and wealthy organization and still preach humility with any degree of sincerity. Pope Francis managed it better than anyone, but he may be struggling now. When he preaches forgiveness, I might find forgiveness in my heart for him, but not so much for the pedos. Let them deal with the law first and then let's talk.

This book is divided into four sections; within those sections are very short statements he has given on different occasions between the years 2013-2016. The pieces are lessons that contain admonishments or suggestions. Those who like to meditate each day on spiritual lessons may find this form very successful for their practice.

Nearly every passage I marked out as insightful, useful, or on a subject discussed for years within the Catholic community came from the summer of 2013 when Pope Francis addressed celibacy:
“Once made, these vows of chastity never end, rather, they endure…when a priest is not a father to his community, when a nun is not a mother to all those with whom she works, he or she becomes sad…This sadness comes from failing to live a truly consecrated life, which, on the contrary, always makes us fruitful, fertile…the beauty of consecration is joy, always joy.”
We can see he means well, but not everyone is cut out to be a priest, let alone a pope, perhaps even less so today.

On another hot-button topic, the role of women in the Church, Pope Francis says this:
“The Church recognizes the indispensable contribution that women make to society, their sensitivity, their intuition, and other distinctive skills that women, more than men, tend to possess. For example, the special attention that women bestow on others, an attention often—but not exclusively—expressed in maternity. I happily acknowledge how many women share pastoral responsibilities with priests, how they guide people, families, and groups and thoughtfully contribute to theological studies.

But we need to create even more opportunities for women in the Church We need feminine genius in every aspect of society. So women must be guaranteed roles in the workplace and wherever important decisions are made, both within the Church and in social structures.”
Dear Pope Francis sounds like he is trying to make nice but his words are so old-fashioned I am not reassured. I would not be the person interested in reforming this edifice and in cranking open the brain boxes of men who long ago closed their minds to an entire sex. No. But I credit any woman willing to take it on. It is truly a labor of generosity and love.

The question remains, is the Church relevant today, or is it still standing but dead inside?

The audio produced by Penguin Random House and beautifully read by Arthur Morey is a good way to enjoy this title, though if using each little entry for meditation you may prefer the written copy. Translated by Oonagh Stransky. Pope Francis was born in Buenos Aires December 17, 1936, and was christened with the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He became the Bishop of Rome and the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church on March 13, 2013.

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Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub Jan 9th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780399588372

The subtitle of this book is “Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say” and her chapter headings are those twelve phrases. Corrigan’s grandmother always reassured her that she was “good enough,” and would be able to withstand the vicissitudes of life because when she failed, she just got right back up again and did something else. That resilience is a quality more important than beauty or intellectual horsepower when it comes to success in life, though nobody believes that when you’re young.

Some of these stories are sad, like when Corrigan loses her dad, and at little later, her best friend Liz. Corrigan can be eloquent when describing how important her best friend was to her, and what a horrifying shock it was to discover she would die. But she leavens her memories with the funny bits…the bits where both their families travelled together with the kids and shared laughs and more.

She is irreverent about her own accomplishments, a career writing, two daughters and a loving husband, but we can tell how much it means to her to be with them. It’s all she wanted: “Four by Forty,” is how she put it. Well, she did not have four kids because breast cancer intervened, but there were still four of them when she turned forty, two kids and two parents, so she satisfied herself with that. Corrigan volunteers to hold newborns at a local hospital once a week, getting her baby fix while giving relief to the corona of families and staff that surround a baby at risk.

One thing Corrigan had learned to say was “tell me more,” which works when someone is upset or when they are angry. The very fact of listening draws people out and clarifies their anxieties so that those stressors can be dealt with or dismissed. One doesn’t have to have any special expertise for this listening and yet people often find it most consoling.

The lesson I liked best was her learning to say ‘No.’
“Sexually, professionally, personally…saying ‘No’ takes balls. One friend told me her one big take away from three years and $11,000 of therapy was ‘Learn to say no and when you do, don’t complain and don’t explain. Every excuse you make is like an invitation to ask you again in a different way.’”
I learned this lesson early and all my life it has been my super power. Corrigan tells us her mother was a ‘No Pro’ who had no desire to curb another’s activities. “She had her own mind and she used it.” If she didn’t want to go somewhere everyone else wanted to go, she’d wave them off and settle happily to spend her evening alone.

“It must be possible to say ‘No’ nicely and still be loved,” Corrigan opines. Her mother must have managed it, since Corrigan loves her now. She may not have at the time, however, and we know this because of Corrigan’s earlier book Glitter and Glue in which Corrigan settles into recognition and love for how she was as a mother.
“Very few people I’ve known are able to set themselves free the way my mother has, liberated by the simple act of saying “no,” which I submit is impressive for any woman and downright radical for one raised in the “nice and easy” generation. My Mom had always been able to find outs where others could not. Looking back I think it came down to her impressive willingness to be disliked and her utterly unromantic position that people should take serious, if not total responsibility, for their own happiness.”
Corrigan has lots of personality—that used to be a way for men to say women are loud—but she actually says stuff rather than just blow air, and she can be really funny. It you listened to her describe using her daughter's round-tipped scissors to cut off a shirt she’d bought on sale but couldn’t manage to take off past her boobs once on, you know what I mean. She may actually be a little bit loud, but she is definitely the one you’d aim for at a party or for a long walk—she’d never be without some observation worth developing into something bigger and deeper. I am nothing like her, but I appreciate that mother nature of hers to the end. I have always admired mothers for their stop-gap practicality and their attention to the things that matter.

The end of this memoir reads like a long eulogy for Liz, and what her friendship meant. It is the best darn eulogy I have ever heard…in a way it sounds like a wedding toast, it is so full of life and love and gratefulness and remembrance. It would be a wonderful model for someone wishing to find a way to say what is in their hearts for their own friends or relatives. We’ll all have to face it one day and judging from Corrigan’s experience, we are never ready.

Corrigan reads the audio of this book herself, and it is a good way to enjoy the Penguin Random House production. The book would be good as well because the eulogy passages you may want to read again.

Attached please find Corrigan in a very short NYT video discussing Glitter & Glue, and below that, a 5 minute audio clip of Tell Me More:

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson

Hardcover, 207 pgs, Pub Jan 16th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812988635

I’d never read any Denis Johnson before this, though of course I knew of his work. I thought I had endless days to finally show my appreciation.

A GR friend describes the eponymous first story as if watching a magician at work. That story is actually a set of very short stories, each so well-conceived and trimmed of fat that worlds are conveyed in a sentence. Perhaps he could have been a lyricist; another GR friend says he was a poet “first and foremost.” Yes.

Both these GR friends cite that first story along with “Triumph Over Grave,” the penultimate story in this collection, as their favorites. So it is with me. These two stories are worth seeking out the collection to read. Probably you will not get a better idea of the art and the man than these.
“What have you been doing with yourself out here?” one character asks another who is naked beneath his open lab coat.
“Thangdoodlin’,” the other man replies. —from “Triumph…”
Johnson knew too much about addiction. It saturates his stories and while in some we get the sense of an understanding compassion for fellow sufferers, at the same time it gives us the claustrophobic I-can’t-breathe quality of hearing the same goddamn story again in its millionth iteration, perhaps even from the same person. Empathy, even sympathy, turns sour over too much time with addicts.
“We alkies are just a tangle of lies like the insides of a golf ball.”
At the same time I want to press this book into the hands of AA & NA attendees to talk about at their choreographed meetings. Surely the vision of someone managing to describe their common symptoms and regrets is restitutive, reflexively imitative. But how would he know these things except to have succumbed more times than can be counted? Some folks manage to escape. We have to hold onto that. Besides, he never asks for more.

Penguin Random House does a magnificent job on the audio of this collection, and provides some Soundcloud clips for stories read by different actors. Below Nick Offerman reading from “Ad Man,” one of the very short stories in “Largesse…”; My favorite voice among all these favorite actors is Michael Shannon reading the first page of “The Starlight on Idaho,” sounding so much like Sam Shepard in voice and subject matter that we remember a time when these men roamed the earth. They meant something to us, addictions or not; Will Patton reads the first pages of “Triumph…”, his voice all shaky and smoky like someone who will never lose the jitters anymore; the first page of “Strangler Bob” read by Dermot Mulroney sounds all brawny and seen-it-all; Liev Schreiber reads the last story in the collection, “Dopplegänger, Poltergeist.”

The Audible edition of the audiobook has all five actors reading one each of five different stories. But be careful with this listen: Denis Johnson’s work is so unflashy that its skill can be easily overlooked when someone reads it aloud just right. The book is small and easy to carry: it allows one to appreciate the shortness of the stories, the way he laid it all out and wrote it down, and what he didn’t say.

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble

Hardcover, Expected pub: Feb 20th 2018 by New York Univ Press, ISBN13: 9781479849949

Noble began collecting information in 2010 after noticing the way Google Search and other internet sites collect and display information about non-white communities. Her results dovetail with other work (e.g., Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil) positing that algorithms are flawed by their very nature: choosing & weighting only some variables to define or capture a phenomenon will deliver a flawed result. Noble wrote this book to explore reasons why Google couldn’t, or wouldn’t, address concerns over search results that channel, shape, distort the search itself, i.e., the search “black girls” yielded only pornographic results, beginning a cascade of increasingly disturbing and irrelevant options for further search.

In her conclusion Noble tells us that she wrote an article about these observations in 2012 for a national women’s magazine, Bitch, and within six weeks the Google Search for “black girls” turned up an entire page of results like “Black Girls Code,” Black Girls Rock,” “7-Year-Old Writes Book to Show Black Girls They Are Princesses.” While Noble declines to take credit for these changes, she continued her research into the way non-white communities are sidelined in the digital universe.

We must keep several things in mind at once if the digital environment is to work for all of us. We must recognize the way the digital universe reflects and perpetuates the white male patriarchy from which it was developed. In order for the internet to live up to the promise of allowing unheard and disenfranchised populations some voice and access to information they can use to enhance their world, we must monitor the creation and use of the algorithms that control the processes by which we add to and search the internet. This is one reason it is so critical to have diversity in tech. Below find just a few of Noble's more salient points:
We are the product that Google sells to advertisers.

The digital interface is a material reality structuring a discourse, embedded with historical relations...Search does not merely present pages but structures knowledge...

Google & other search engines have been enlisted to make decisions about the proper balance between personal privacy and access to information. The vast majority of these decisions face no public scrutiny, though they shape public discourse.

Those who have the power to design systems--classification or technical [like library, museum, & information professionals]--hold the ability to prioritize hierarchical schemes that privilege certain types of information over others.

The search arena is consolidated under the control of only a few companies.

Algorithms that rank & prioritize for profits compromise our ability to engage with complicated ideas. There is no counterposition, nor is there a disclaimer or framework for contextualizing what we get.

Access to high quality information, from journalism to research, is essential to a healthy and viable democracy...In some cases, journalists are facing screens that deliver real-time analytics about the virality of their stories. Under these circumstances, journalists are encouraged to modify headlines and keywords within a news story to promote greater traction and sharing among readers.
An early e-version of this manuscript obtained through Netgalley had formatting and linking issues that were a hindrance to understanding. Noble writes here for an academic audience I presume, and as such her jargon and complicated sentences are appropriate for communicating the most precise information in the least space. However, for a general audience this book would be a slog, something not true if one listens to Noble (as in the attached TED talk linked below). Surely one of the best things this book offers is a collection of references to others who are working on these problems around the country.

The other best thing about this book is an affecting story Noble includes in the final pages of her Epilogue about Kandis, a long-established black hairdresser in a college town trying to keep her business going by registering online with the ratings site, Yelp. Noble writes in the woman’s voice, simply and forthrightly, without jargon, and the clarity and moral force of the story is so hard-hitting, it is worth picking up the book for this story alone. At the very least I would recommend a TED talk on this story, and suggest placing the story closer to the front of this book in subsequent editions. For those familiar with Harvard Business Review case studies, this is a perfect one.

Basically, the story is as follows: Kandis's shop became an established business in the 1980s, before the fall off of black scholars attending the university "when the campus stopped admitting so many Blacks." To keep those fewer students aware that her business provided an exclusive and necessary service in the town, she spent many hours to find a way to have her business come up when “black hair” was typed in as a search term within a specified radius of the school. The difficulties she experienced illustrate the algorithm problems clearly.
“To be a Black woman and to need hair care can be an isolating experience. The quality of service I provide touches more than just the external part of someone. It’s not just about their hair.”
I do not want to get off the subject Noble has concentrated on with such eloquence in her treatise, but I can’t resist noting that we are talking about black women’s hair again…Readers of my reviews will know I am concerned that black women have experienced violence in their attitudes about their hair. If I am misinterpreting what I perceive to be hatred of something so integral to their beings, I would be happy to know it. If black hair were perceived instead as an extension of one’s personality and sexuality without the almost universal animus for it when undressed, I would not worry about this obsession as much. But I think we need also to work on making black women recognize their hair is beautiful. Period.

By the time we get to Noble’s Epilogue, she has raised a huge number of discussion points and questions which grew from her legitimate concerns that Google Search seemed to perpetuate the status quo or service a select group rather than break new ground for enabling the previously disenfranchised. This is critically important, urgent, and complicated work and Noble has the energy and intellectual fortitude needed to work with others to address these issues. This book would be especially useful for those looking for an area in the digital arena to piggyback her work to try and make a difference.

Below please find a 12-minute TED talk with Ms. Noble:

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Friday, February 9, 2018

Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Hardcover, 418 pgs, Pub Mar 1st 2016 by Crown, ISBN13: 9780553447439, Lit Awards: Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction (2017), PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction (2017), Los Angeles Times Book Prize Nominee for Current Interest (2016), National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction (2016), Andrew Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction (2017), Kirkus Prize Nominee for Nonfiction (2016), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Nonfiction (2016)

This book won a number of awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, for uncovering a housing problem in America that appears to disproportionately affect low-income renters and keep them in a cycle of perpetual uncertainty: eviction. A beautifully written and involving set of individual family case studies, this sociological work casts light on a problem that has developed over time and has not been well understood to date.

Desmond is able to involve his readers in the lives of the people he describes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin because he includes many details of their circumstances which we may recognize. The decision-making and determination of these folks to get out of the cycle of eviction they face is not flawed. They work with imperfect tools and face a constantly renewing mountain to climb starting from a new lower low with each instance of rent non-payment and subsequent eviction.

Addiction doesn’t appear to be the most common cause of eviction, at least among the people whose stories Desmond shares with us, though it does figure in the lives of many families he describes. Lending money to addicts is a constant drain on everyone’s scarce resources. Neither does wild over-spending appear to be a common cause of poverty. Desmond will argue that wild overspending on inappropriate items is a result of poverty, not a cause.

Hard as it is for us to admit, exploitation by landlords appears to contribute hugely to reasons low-income tenants cannot be free from the cycle of eviction. The slumlords to whom Desmond introduces us extract outsized profits from very low-end housing without necessary inputs like plumbing, painting, repairs. This leads to families not valuing their abode, children being placed in unsafe conditions, and adds to the burdens of rent-payers.

Recognizing that renting out housing at the low end of the market is not a charity, we must still condemn excessive profit at the client’s expense. What are excessive profits? If these notions are not universally recognized, they need to be challenged in court. Desmond points out that most tenants facing eviction do not show up in court to challenge charges against them or to raise property maintenance issues. These huge, messy problems involve individuals with extenuating circumstances. Sometimes the problems appear circular, and insoluble.

Desmond will argue that housing should be considered a basic human right, like clean drinking water, protection for elders, and universal education. This proposal may cause catalepsy among libertarians. Conservatives for small government might agree, however, that we don’t want to live in a country where people are living and/or dying on the streets, unable to free themselves from a cycle of dependence. I think we all can agree with that. The question remains: what is the best way to evict people from poverty?

Desmond suggests a universal voucher for all low-income families in his epilogue, but I won’t repeat his argument here. You need all the pieces to make sense of what he is proposing. It helps to see the scope of the problem by reading the book—no hardship because it is so well written—but you can also just go to the Epilogue. I do want to point to a couple of interesting observations he makes earlier regarding fixes made so far to address poverty and homelessness but which developed unexpected consequences.

People using vouchers are allowed to use those vouchers in any community in states that accept vouchers, which means low-income renters could try to escape the inner city which can be dangerous and unkempt. However, prospective tenants often encounter a reluctance on the part of landlords to rent to families with children, pets, or smoking habits. Renters themselves don’t like the greater adherence to immutable rules that are common in more upscale locations, and the lack of leniency in the case of under-payments.

Currently landlords in low-income housing areas do not want to accept housing vouchers and rent assistance in most of their properties because “they didn’t want to deal with the program's picky inspectors.” There are legal limits to the degradation on a property which accepts government-issued vouchers. This is true everywhere, but those on housing assistance get checked on. This “government interference” some conservatives (and slumlords) decry. So much for the market policing itself.

The option of “working off the rent” is only taken advantage of by male tenants, Desmond found. This option should have appeared more possible for women as well, it seems, but it parallels the phenomenon of exchanging sex for rent which appears to be an exclusively a female option. Desmond did not encounter this among his interviewees.

Among interviewees who were evicted, few felt pity for others in similar circumstances: they often felt “it was their own fault” for unsound choices they’d made and were disinclined to help. This included Christians and church-going neighbors, though examples of times they’d helped in the past were evident. Evicted tenants were reluctant to ask family, or were refused if asked.

This is one problem among many in this country. The world is changing utterly, and fast. We need to fundamentally rethink how we want business and government to run going forward. Looking back nostalgically is the wrong solution, I am convinced.

Perhaps something like an offer for free college but also a requirement for national service could be brainstormed. If we sent youth out to be witnesses in these problem areas, have them suggest & develop solutions, and follow through, e.g., gaining new skills building better housing, repairing old housing stock, using their legal skills attending law court for strapped tenants, I think both sides might get something from the experience. Sociologists, finance, nursing, social welfare, law, teachers...everybody has something to offer.

One of the most heartbreaking results of this cycle of evictions is its effect on the children. Trying to round up the children for schooling each day when they have been displaced so many times--in one case Desmond found the child moved schools five times. Some of the children watch a parent hauled off for doing something illegal under pressure to round up enough cash to keep themselves housed. Violence explodes suddenly and cannot be controlled. The children need more attention, and protection, but the adults do, too. Few among us have that kind of resilience.

The problems that befall individuals and families are inconceivable to those among us without similar constraints. Religious groups could ramp up their services and showcase their empathy and yet not feel as though they were laboring alone in the wilderness. We can see how that has impacted their outreach in the past.

Does it make any difference if low-income people live among wealthier neighbors? I believe it could allow them to see how others live, what other choices and opportunities are out there, and allow them to get help from neighbors in the normal way we all do. Dilution of the problem—is it coercive if we eliminate “low-income” housing altogether? Anyway, just thinking…

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Hardcover, 672 pgs, Pub Sept 20th 2011 by Pantheon, ISBN13: 9780375424144, Lit Awards: Harvey Awards Nominee for Best Graphic Album-Original, Best Artist (for Craig Thompson), Best Cartoonist (for Craig Thompson) (2012), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best Writer/Artist (for Craig Thompson) (2012), IGN Award for Best Original Graphic Novel (2011)

In an interview Craig Thompson told his audience that artists must become vulnerable if their work is to mean anything. This dark and agonized work has a great deal of nakedness in it, both literally and figuratively, and a lot of staring directly at human experience and trying to make sense of it. It also looks with a colder, more dispassionate and assessing eye at the overlap in the religious teachings of Christianity and Islam.

This is Thompson’s fourth published work, and one glance inside gives some idea why it took six years to complete. The graphic work is fantastically detailed and patterned, which over more than six hundred pages becomes claustrophobic and oppressive with patterns repeated again and again in different combinations. This is partly due to the size of the pattern, which seems to become more and more compressed as the story progresses, and the more-black-than-white palette.

The patterns are beautiful, and may represent mathematical principles that sustain the progress upon which the world is built, but by the end I got the distinct impression Thompson was asking us to question even that progress: is it good? Who is it good for and how can it be modified to suit a different world with better outcomes? One is not accustomed to such weighty questions in the work of graphic artists.

Thompson is unique in many ways, but certainly the source of his questioning may come from his fundamentalist Christian upbringing in rural Wisconsin, an upbringing he explores in his second graphic novel and the first large-scale project of his career, Blankets. Thompson freely admits he still believes in God, but he is less sure now how best to worship him.

That his father was a plumber Thompson credits with the understanding that water is precious. This book is plumbed through with references to the primacy and importance of water in our world, our lives. This aspect of the book was another piece that elevated the story-telling to something essential.

Some discussion among reviewers condemns the sex, violence, and numerous representations of the naked human form depicted in this work as gratuitous. I will argue that is not the case. There is no question that the storyteller in this case is frightened by and ashamed of his powerful sexual feelings, but his arousal is well within the bounds of normal male sexuality and should, in fact, educate readers about the conflicted emotional trauma that can accompany the physical manifestations of desire.

In the years Thompson worked on this book, he learned to appreciate and to write some Arabic script, but never learned to speak. His translators and friends in the endeavor to understand Islam—its culture, science, and art—reviewed the story he created to check for realism and racism. In the end, any understanding readers take away about the religion or culture of the region belong to Thompson alone, but I suspect he feels confident in his depiction.

Simply sketched, the story is as follows: a light-skinned girl and a dark-skinned boy find themselves orphaned in the desert. They make a life and grow up together for a period of years before they are violently separated. They spend a long period of time hoping to find one another again and then one day, they do. The story has an impetus and emotion even without the later personality-defining moments of coercion and despair depicted with the same pitiless camera-eye that captured their earlier life.

If I say that there are many complications and observations along the way, it will give you scant warning for the deluge that is to come. This work is huge, covering enormous ground, picking up and putting down again many topics worthy of examination and discussion. It is overwhelming, as it undoubtedly was to write. I have never determined how an editor deals with slimming the opus of an auteur. The only thing I can think of is that cut pages or threads could be sold separately once the work has been published to acclaim.

Thompson’s willingness to look closely at who we are evinces in me admiration and gratitude, not censure. I look eagerly forward to what he decides to do next, whether it be drawing, writing, or something else of his choice. He is extraordinary in every way.

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

War Music by Christopher Logue, Homer

Paperback, 240 pgs, Pub Oct 12th 2003 by University Of Chicago Press (first pub 1981), Orig Title: War Music: An Account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer's Iliad, ISBN13: 9780226491905

Christopher Logue was a poet. Irreverent and utterly original, he was asked to “contribute to a new version” of Homer’s Iliad. Despite protestations that he knew no Greek, he looked over the earliest attempts to translate the work and came up with something…irreverent and utterly original.

Logue offers “an account” of Homer’s Iliad, just as a later poet, Alice Oswald in Memorial, would offer an interpretation…not a translation. Lovers of the Iliad, those who know well the story and joyfully encounter each new translation, will just as eagerly sink into the off-beat nature of this poet’s unique and modern take.

We know Achilles hated Agamemnön, but Achilles’ shouted challenges to the older man in the voice of earlier translators did not have the modernistic sensibility of Logue’s:
‘Mouth! King mouth!’
Then stopped. Then from the middle of the common sand said:
“Heroes, behold your King—
Slow as an arrow fired feathers first
To puff another’s worth,
But watchful as a cockroach of his own.”
Ah, I love that. May I say I can think of another leader who fits the ‘watchful cockroach’ image, who sports a hair mantle not unlike that of the cockroach's carapace. Damn hard to eradicate him, too.

The sport of the gods is evident throughout, despite the bloody gore of a war among equals.
“But they just smile. They are the gods.
They have all the time in the world.
And Lord Apollo orchestrates their dance.
And Leto smiles to see her son, the son of God,
Playing his lyre among them, stepping high,
Hearing his Nine sing how the gods have everlasting joy,
Feasting together, sleeping together,
Kind, color, calendar no bar, time out of mind,
And how we humans suffer at their hands,
Childish believers, fooled by science and art,
Bound for Oblivion—
And Aphrodite, Queen of Love, “her breasts alert and laden with desire…” addresses Helen:
“Do stop this nonsense, Helen, dear…
...Try not to play the thankless bitch:
‘Such a mistake to leave my land, my kiddywink…’
What stuff. Millions would give that lot
For half the looks that I have given you…
...Be proud. You have brought harm. Tremendous boys
Of every age have slaughtered one another
Just for you!
… Bear this in mind:
Without my love, somewhere between the Greek and Trojan lines
A cloud of stones would turn your face to froth.
So, when they lift the curtains, and he looks—you hesitate.
And then you say: Take me, and I shall please you.”
What do you say?
‘Take me, and I shall please you.’
“Good. Now in you go.”
Christopher Logue died in 2011, so his account of Books 1-4 and 16-19--this fragment that ends with the death of Petroclus--is what we have left. His similes remain: "Spears like nettles stirred by the wind," “Dust like red mist,” Pain like chalk on slate,” Arrows that drift like bees,” “Tearing its belly like a silk balloon…” And so it goes on.

One is never finished with the Iliad when one has read it. It lingers, and while it does, Christopher Logue’s version gives some joy.

Jeffrey Brown, Arts Correspondent for PBS’ Newshour, reviews War Music in the NYT and gives some background about the work.

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