"On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."
There's the first glorious sentence"On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."
There's the first glorious sentence of the greatest New York book ever written. Yes, the competitionisstiff, but this is it. You could underline this entire book, and I very nearly did.
I've lived in several cities, and come to the conclusion that they're all more or less alike. As homes for many different people, they must do many different things; there is no room for a city with a distinct personality, because there is no identifiable personality within it. Attempts to force personalities onto cities are reductive. They have many stores and many streets and many people.
But New York is different, and here's E.B. White on why.
There are roughly three New Yorks: There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in search of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last - the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.
It's New York's status as "the city that is a goal" that makes it different. You walk down the street and nearly everyone you pass came here on purpose - not to any city but to this one, the big one. They chose not to make it anywhere, but to make it here. When you see images like this recent, viral one:
This is precisely New York. Which is of course not to say that either of these people weren't born in New York - how would I know? - just that certainly that person on the right, at least, was going to end up here eventually. PS pop quiz, which of these people is least likely to stand up for a pregnant lady? A: trick question, the answer is the suited douchebag sitting next to them playing Temple Run on his phone.
The wonderful thing about Here is New York, written in 1948, is that it still perfectly describes New York today. It still operates - surprisingly to some - as "a composite of tens of thousands of tiny neighborhood units." I think about that every time I walk to the bodega (almost daily), where Sandra complains that my serious son refuses to smile at her.
This, too, is more true than ever: "The city has never been so uncomfortable, so crowded, so tense. Money has been plentiful and New York has responded. Restaurants are hard to get into; businessmen stand in line for a Schraff's luncheon as meekly as idle men used to stand in soup lines." I don't know what the hell Schraff's is - now it's fucking Ramen burgers or whatever - but the lines are still there. BTW Ramen burgers are bullshit.
And then there's this, from the very last page: "All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, new York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm." Oof.
I'm originally from Boston, so I've spent most of my life talking shit about New York. (NYC is also the greatest city in the world to talk shit about!) But then I came here, because I was in search of something. I've found it* and someday I might leave with it; New York is a city of arrivals but also of departures. It's been a very special time in my life, and I've learned something valuable from it: the Yankees still suck.
The headlines were "Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a comic book," but they should have been "Ta-Nehisi Coates writes fiction." Coates is famous for nonfictioThe headlines were "Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a comic book," but they should have been "Ta-Nehisi Coates writes fiction." Coates is famous for nonfiction. I assume he's working on a novel - who isn't? - so this might be seen as sortof a test run.
Comic books are different from novels, though, and they're harder then they look. They're a team effort, for one thing - the artist is responsible for a lot of the storytelling. By tradition, writers don't interfere much with how the artists choose to tell the story. I don't know if Coates followed the tradition or not, but the artists here - Brian Selfreeze and Chris Sprouse - don't do an awesome job. There's a fight scene around issue 6 where it's literally impossible to tell who's doing what. If you feel hopelessly lost right on page one, yeah, so did I.
And the story has to be tightly packed, too. Compressed. You get like ten sentences per page before things start getting cluttered, so you can't waste a word. Coates hasn't figured out how to do this. He's got a lot going on here, and he fails to communicate it clearly enough.
What he's up to is taking a superhero spin on actual African events. (Black Panther, who's been around since the 60s, has always been African - the king of an imaginary African country.) Black Panther faces a revolution in his country; both sides claim to be for the people, as they do. He asks questions about violence and non-violence, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o does in Petals of Blood and as Mandela did during the South African struggle against apartheid. He tries to pull his sister back from the tribal spirit land she's lost in, raising questions about old beliefs colliding with new ones, which might remind you of Things Fall Apart. These themes run throughout African history, and Coates wants to explore all of it.
So that's a lot for an art form where significant space also has to be reserved for punching, and what happens is sometimes I would read the recap of previous events that starts each issue and think oh, so that's what happened.
The thing about Chimamanda Adichie is, she's so appallingly good. This is the second book I've read by her and both times I'm just, like, the whole waThe thing about Chimamanda Adichie is, she's so appallingly good. This is the second book I've read by her and both times I'm just, like, the whole way through, I can't believe how fucking good this book is. She's perfectly positioned to be one of the great writers of our time, with her global heritage and global stories - she was born in Nigeria and continues to split her time between there and the US. She is exactly the way novels are going. And she's so good at writing them! We're watching one of the greats create herself, and that's very exciting.
For Half of a Yellow Sun, her second book, she reaches back to her parents' lives, into the catastrophic Biafran War of the 60s. It's a war novel. Not at first - she spends about the first half introducing us to her characters: twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, their husbands the intellectual Odenigbo and the white guy Richard, and Olanna's houseboy Ugwu. The perspective shifts chapter by chapter between Ugwu, Olanna and Richard. All are interesting; Adichie pulls off the immense feat of making this part fully engaging, so you're not just waiting for the war. Of course she pulls it off, she's fucking balls.
But the war does come, and you get - oh, Adichie would love this comparison - sortof a Gone With the Wind collapse from wealth to poverty. The family is Igbo - those are the people who seceded from Nigeria, fighting against the Yoruba, the other major Nigerian ethnic group, and also the Hausa. This second half is nasty stuff, so be warned: as Adichie's father would say, agha ajoka. War is very ugly.
It's an actual epic, like they used to make in the olden days, ambitious and powerful. I still like Americanah just slightly better, but I wouldn't want to have to choose just one.
Appendix: Soundtrack Music is important to Adichie - she's one of the rare writers who can really talk about music - and here the soundtrack is the Nigerian Highlife genre, a brand of Afropop. It's awesome and there's a compilation available on Spotify and Youtube. Sound quality is absolute shit on it; Vol. 2 is slightly better quality, but it has less Rex Lawson and it's missing this glorious cover of "Grazing in the Grass," which I only knew from this awesome psychedelic soul version. Turns out they just made up those lyrics, who knew....more
"Some of us - poets - are not exactly poets. We live sometimes - beyond the word."
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning playwright and poet,"Some of us - poets - are not exactly poets. We live sometimes - beyond the word."
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning playwright and poet, and that's just the beginning. The Guardian describes him as "the conscience of the nation." He spent almost two years in solitary confinement as a political prisoner in the 60s. He once seized a radio station by armed force to broadcast a rebel transmission. He's been asked twice to run for President. (He refuses, because it would require compromise.) Soyinka isn't an artist with activist tendencies; he's an activist with artistic tendencies. The quote above is a warning. He's speaking to a man who casually mistook him for a poet, and as such, a victim of political persecution. Wole Soyinka is nobody's victim.
The hair is awesome but it's caused problems for Soyinka, who's found it hard to disguise himself when he's needed to go underground
So you won't find much in this memoir, about his creative process. You'll find almost nothing about his family. What you have instead is a sprawling history of modern Nigeria, and his place within it, which is substantial.
Some of his stories are terrific. Wole Soyinka once flew to Brazil in order to steal a Nigerian relic back from a private collector. Pulled it off, too! He jokes that maybe the plot of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" was ripped off from his own life. I don't remember the plot of Temple of Doom, that movie sucks, but this story is awesome.
Here's the piece, Ori Olokun
These great stories are scattered, and the connecting tissue isn't great. There are a lot of names and events; I couldn't keep them straight. He indulges in some score-settling and some humble bragging along the way. It took me a long time to read You Must Proceed at Dawn; it doesn't particularly have a plot, so I wasn't fully engaged. Ake: The Years of Childhood is his most famous book, and maybe an easier read; I couldn't get my hands on it. I've also heard good things about his prison journal, The Man Died.
Soyinka's muse is Ogun, the "creative-combative deity," the "Yoruba god of the restless road and creative solitude, the call of the lyric and the battle cry." It's been suggested that he is possessed by Ogun's spirit; why else has he continually put himself in harm's way?
I googled Ogun and found this, wtf
Well, because he lives beyond the word. This book isn't great, but he is; I'm glad I got to know him a little....more
Long Walk to Freedom is the first book I've read by the leader of a country containing instructions on how to overthrow a country.
Mandela is serious aLong Walk to Freedom is the first book I've read by the leader of a country containing instructions on how to overthrow a country.
Mandela is serious about this. He mentions that when his African National Congress decided to commit to violence, they read "works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro" to figure out how to do it. The phrase "A freedom fighter must..." recurs. He means this to be read by freedom fighters. This book is many things, but maybe the most important thing is a manual for revolution.
It's also a defense of Mandela's legacy, and that part is interesting too. Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, which seemed odd to everyone since he has not advocated peace. "I called for nonviolent protest for as long as it was effective," he says. When it was ineffective, "I was candid and explained why I believed we had no choice but to turn to violence." He lays out the "four types of violent activities," which should be undertaken in order: "sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution." The ANC never moved beyond sabotage, but he says clearly: "we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism." So maybe I shouldn't say defense. It's a clarification.
This sets us up for the most dramatic scene in the book, and one of the most dramatic in history: the Rivonia Trial in 1964, in which Mandela and several others were sentenced to life in prison for sabotage. This was a victory: death was on the table. Mandela chose not to defend himself; instead he delivered a statement about which his lawyers said, "If Mandela reads this in court they will take him out in back of the courthouse and string him up." Here's part of his statement:
I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence, I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by whites.
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
You can actually hear part of this speech here - skip to 2:10 if you're in a hurry. It's an incredible thing to listen to.
I grew up while Mandela was in prison, and apartheid in South Africa was the first injustice I was aware of. My first experience with activism, in Amherst MA with the mighty activist Frances Crow, was running around town putting up posters with Mandela's face on them. Mandela screwed up my hair: in high school my mom wouldn't let me grow it long until I claimed that I wasn't cutting it until Mandela was freed, which she felt she couldn't argue with. They freed him like six months later and I was like aw, man. It seemed like a foolproof plan! I got to see him speak shortly afterwards in Boston on his freedom tour, but I didn't have a chance to tell him about my hair.
This is all to say that reading this book was a powerful experience for me. Mandela is one of history's true heroes of freedom. To be able to read his words is special and of immense value. I got actual chills at times, reading about how (for example) he refused to be freed if it meant compromising his movement. He was in jail for nearly 30 years. This isn't one of those books that makes you realize that the writer is just a person like you and me. Mandela was not like you and me. He was a titan....more
The crazy thing is that this is fiction: apartheid in South Africa somehow didn't end in war. People actually got together and said this isn't going tThe crazy thing is that this is fiction: apartheid in South Africa somehow didn't end in war. People actually got together and said this isn't going to work, and they had an election, and Mandela won, and that was that. (This is the short version, okay?)
So July's People is sortof science fiction. Written in 1981, about a decade before apartheid fell, it presents how Gordimer, a white anti-apartheid activist and a Nobel prize winner, predicted the fall would go. Her white protagonists (also anti-apartheid) flee their home in Johannesburg when war breaks out and take shelter with July, who had been one of their servants, in his village. It's a small-scale story, focusing on the two families far from the main conflict. The balance of power shifts. There is confusion over who now owns the family car. It's a metaphor! It's fun to think about whether it's a utopian or dystopian novel.
The style is cold, a little removed, sometimes hard to follow. You start in media res, unsure of what's going on. I wasn't fully engaged. It's been accused of being patronizing toward blacks. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It's complicated: no one is entirely good or bad. The white family's heart is in the right place, but they're way out of their element. July himself is opaque, purposefully but frustratingly. Gordimer doesn't tie the story up for us: (view spoiler)[in the end a helicopter arrives at the remote village, and we're unsure whether it brings help or violence. (hide spoiler)]
Spoilers, here's how Herakles (Hercules) dies: his wife Deianeira got groped by the centaur Nessus and in revenge Herakles killed him with a poison arSpoilers, here's how Herakles (Hercules) dies: his wife Deianeira got groped by the centaur Nessus and in revenge Herakles killed him with a poison arrow, and as he was dying Nessus told Deianeira to save the blood from his wound, it could be a love charm for Herakles if she ever needs it. Years later, Herakles sends slaves home ahead of him from battle, among them a nubile woman Deianeira learns he's In love with. She gives this amazing speech about her - I know my husband fucks tons of women, it's cool! - but she's insecure, the woman is super pretty. She uses Nessus's blood to anoint a robe, thinking Herakles will love her again; instead (duh) it poisons him, his own poison from beyond the grave, and he dies in agony. Devastated, Deianeira commits suicide.
There's the plot of Sophocles' Women of Trakhis (450 or later BCE). There are definitely notes of Aeschylus's Agamemnon here. In that older (458 BCE) and better play, Agamemnon arrives home from the Trojan War with his new concubine Cassandra; his wife Clytemnestra, who was already pissed off after he murdered their daughter because it wasn't windy enough, takes her own action. Clytemnestra has more agency than Deianeira, and Agamemnon's a more interesting work. Women of Trakhis is cool, though - dark and tragic and dramatic. The line repeatedly referred to is "Count no man happy until the end is known." (It's reportedly from Solon, in a story told by Herodotus.) That's an interesting thing to think about, and also a massive bummer if your life is going pretty well.
This review is also here, with the rest of the Sophocles reviews. ...more
First of all, Aias (the title in my edition) is Ajax - Big Ajax, the hero of the Trojan War. There, I saved you from "who the fuck even is this guy."First of all, Aias (the title in my edition) is Ajax - Big Ajax, the hero of the Trojan War. There, I saved you from "who the fuck even is this guy." Ajax plays a big role in The Iliad. At one point he defends the Achaean fleet from the Trojans single-handedly while Achilles is off sulking. But after the war Achilles's armor, which amounts to the Heisman Trophy of the war, is given to wily Odysseus after his speech about it proves more eloquent. Ajax is so pissed off that he goes on a murderous rampage against what turns out to be a flock of sheep. (Fuckin' Athena, always getting up in your head: he thought he was killing Agamemnon and Odysseus.) Humiliated, he kills himself.
The play is about, what happens if the person who deserves the win doesn't get it? What if you feel you clearly earned leadership, but it's stolen by the other guy? Do you go on a murderous rampage? Do you burn it all down?
This review is also here, with a bunch of other Sophocles stuff....more
Styron gets knocked for two reasons. The first is that he's an appropriater: in his Pulitzer-winning Confessions of Nat Turner, he appropriated the faStyron gets knocked for two reasons. The first is that he's an appropriater: in his Pulitzer-winning Confessions of Nat Turner, he appropriated the famous slave revolutionary's story, and here he's taken the Holocaust. As he's neither black nor Jewish, some black and Jewish people are like wtf are you doing with my history. The second knock is that he writes clear and exciting prose with a lot of fancy words, leading Martin Amis to call him a "thesaurus of florid commonplaces."
"In my career as a writer," says Stingo, Sophie's Choice's narrator, "I have always been attracted to morbid themes - suicide, rape, murder, military life, marriage, slavery." (I love that marriage is just slipped in there.) Stingo is about to write a novel about Nat Turner, so it's not a stretch to call him a stand-in for Styron. James Baldwin, a friend and defender, said that "He writes out of reasons similar to mine - about something that hurt him and frightened him."
What hurts and frightens Styron is evil, and Sophie's Choice is about evil. He's shaken by the reality of it. Stingo figures out exactly what he was doing on the morning that Sophie arrived at Auschwitz: eating a banana on a beautiful day in North Carolina. This is his point, repeated often: at any given moment, while you're living your mundane life, someone in the world is capable of the deepest evil. American slavery looms over the story: Styron would like us to remember that we're sitting around in a country built on genocide, acting horrified about what the Nazis did. Stingo is supported in part by a treasure found in an ancestor's basement; the treasure is the proceeds from the sale of a slave.
The third character in the book is Nathan, Sophie's lover, and he embodies this human schizophrenia literally. He's unstable: often charming, occasionally careening into violent madness. (view spoiler)[He turns out to be a paranoid schizophrenic. (hide spoiler)] Here's humanity according to Styron. In the end, (view spoiler)[Sophie commits suicide with Nathan. (hide spoiler)] Did I mention that this book is a bummer?
What was happening that morning as Sophie, our destroyed heroine, arrived at Auschwitz was the deepest evil Styron can think of. You probably know what the choice was, right? I'd never read the book or seen the movie but I've been using it as a joke for years: "Should we get burritos or fried chicken for lunch?" "Oh no, this is like Sophie's Choice." The ending of this book upset me so badly that I feel awful for ever making that joke. I've rarely been so crushed by a novel.
Styron is less interested in Sophie's choice than in the fact that she was forced to make it. Here's the worst thing in the world, he says. Styron didn't make the choice up; he got it from Hannah Arendt, who says she got it from Camus. But could it happen? Of course it could; if we can't prove this exact story, we have ample proof of stories like it. Who could do it? Could you do it? Could someone be doing it right now?
Styron believes that evil can happen anywhere, any time, to anyone. It could be happening now, as you read this review. Maybe you're eating a banana. You are not intrinsically better than slaveowners or Nazis. You're lucky that as yet you haven't had to decide whether to resist or submit. He asks:
The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"
And the answer: "Where was man?”
Styron would like us to make sure we're prepared to be there....more
Joyce Carol Oates is not in the habit of pulling her punches. She might be the only writer in the history of the world both willing and able to name aJoyce Carol Oates is not in the habit of pulling her punches. She might be the only writer in the history of the world both willing and able to name a book "Rape." She's a powerful author, and I'm a big fan.
This wasn't my favorite of her books. What's it all about? Fury, right? I mean, and rape. It's definitely about rape. Nothing else happens. It's short. The personalities and histories of the people in it are briefly sketched out. Mostly, there's a rape and then there's the aftermath of the rape and then it's over. The rape is unambiguous. It's about as awful as it can be. The plot is similar to the Jodi Foster movie The Accused. That movie was made in 1988, and this book was published in 2003, and it feels a little dated. Aren't we past victim blaming? Surely no one in this day and age would...oh.Nevermind.
Oates has picked a weird avatar for justice. (view spoiler)[This is John Dromoor, a sociopathic veteran. Oates carefully introduces him as a dangerous man. You might assume at first that he's a bad guy. He is a bad guy, as in a not good person. But after the courts fail Teena Maguire, he takes justice into his own hands, carefully murdering four of the men who raped her. You might sortof expect justice to be female, right? (hide spoiler)] I'm not sure what Oates is trying to tell us here. I don't have a problem with it - it's interesting - just don't know what to make of it.
There's a subtitle here, "A Love Story," and I have no idea what to make of that either. It's not a love story. There is love, I guess - (view spoiler)[Teena's 12-year-old daughter Beth has some sort of puppy love crush on Dromoor, which again fills you with dread but nothing comes of it, thank god because you've just about taken all the bad news you can get from this book (hide spoiler)] - but no story about it. It's a rape story. It's upsetting....more
JM Coetzee writes allegories. His books always work on at least two levels. So while the plot of this book is that a professor fucks his student and iJM Coetzee writes allegories. His books always work on at least two levels. So while the plot of this book is that a professor fucks his student and is disgraced for it, that's not what it's about.
It's about post apartheid South Africa, Coetzee's home country. Whites, in charge for so long, lose power. Blacks, furious, punish them. People struggle to find a way forward. (view spoiler)[Out of it all, inevitably, a biracial baby is born. (hide spoiler)] Coetzee (rhymes with "book see") uses rape as a metaphor, which seems to be a thing for him. Tony D'Souza calls Disgrace "the definitive work on South Africa’s present state."
Coetzee writes exact books. He knows what he's doing. He has a point, and every sentence aims at the point. His work is powerful but manicured. There are no unruly digressions. They are strict. And nasty, too: violence and rape are Coetzee's recurring themes. Coetzee seems to have more sympathy for women than for men. His protagonist here, ex-Professor Lurie, is awful. His daughter Lucy is sympathetic and complicated, the soul of the book. "You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life," she tells him.
You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn't make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important to me as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.
There's some metafiction here, as there always is in Coetzee. He knows what he's doing with this plot. "Half of literature is about it," he points out. "Young women struggling to escape from under the weight of old men." The book is about the struggle, not the weight....more
St. Francis of Assisi, the one with the birds, chose poverty.
'He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all his clothes off his back. He enjo
St. Francis of Assisi, the one with the birds, chose poverty.
'He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all his clothes off his back. He enjoyed to be poor. He said poverty was a queen and he loved her like she was a beautiful woman.'
Sam shook his head. 'It ain't beautiful, kiddo. To be poor is dirty work.'
'He took a fresh view of things.'
Everyone is poor in The Assistant, desperately, grindingly poor, Raskolnikov poor, even Hunger poor. Morris Bober works 16-hour days in a dire grocery, barely managing to feed himself and his wife Ida and daughter Helen. An assistant arrives.
The assistant is Frank Alpine, who is not good. It's not a surprise when you learn that he was (view spoiler)[involved in the robbery of the grocery that begins the novel. (hide spoiler)] He peeks in the window to watch Helen shower. He steals. It gets worse. (view spoiler)[He saves Helen from rape, only to rape her himself. (hide spoiler)]
It's going to sound lame when I say it, but the question is who is getting assisted. Frank saves Morris's grocery; his energy, charisma and non-Jewishness bring in fresh business, and when Morris is incapacitated Frank saves him from disaster. But Frank wants to be good, although by all evidence he is congenitally bad, and it's Morris's example that he follows - Morris, who insists on giving food away to those even marginally poorer than himself.
It comes off as a fable. The Assistant is one of those perfectly constructed, tight novels, every page leading directly to the next. Malamud writes clearly and unpretentiously, so when he flashes out with an occasional burst of poetry - "Who was he making into a wife out of snowy moonlight?" - it stops you in your tracks.
Frank is bad enough that you're not exactly rooting for him to have a happy ending. (view spoiler)[And Malamud doesn't exactly give him one. He hints at it. But in a twist ending that works once it arrives, Frank gets himself circumcised and Jewishized to end the novel; Malamud leaves the rest up in the air.
Rape is such an enormous crime that its presence bends a novel; once rape appears, you might feel that the novel is about rape. Malamud chooses a massive crime because, like Dostoevsky, he's arguing that redemption is always possible. Your call whether you're comfortable with that or not. (hide spoiler)] Although the novel has drive and a message, Malamud doesn't traffic in absolutes; it all feels real and rooted and ambiguous. He's subtler than Dostoevsky.
Malamud is usually lumped in with a trio of Jewish American mid-20th century authors - him and Bellow and Roth. But Malamud has faded sharply; I'd never even heard of him until recently. Why? Maybe it's because Roth killed him, Oedipus-style. I don't know. Tell you what though: I don't love Bellow and I don't even like Roth, but I loved this book. "I want the moon so all I get is cheese," complains Frank. Sometimes cheese is enough....more
The problem with female friends is that you always run the risk of your sons fucking them, Doris Lessing points out. Adore, originally published as ThThe problem with female friends is that you always run the risk of your sons fucking them, Doris Lessing points out. Adore, originally published as The Grandmothers in a 2003 collection of novellas, is about one of those all-too-frequent occurrences: two lifelong friends have affairs with each other's sons.
It's good: I liked reading it and it's got things to say about female friendship and sortof the dangers of mothers in general. I read it as sortof a corrective to the old, boring story about old men fucking younger women. Those stories are lame wish-fulfillment; this story is not. One expects Doris Lessing to be smarter and more complicated than Philip Roth, and she is.
It didn't change my life; it's not a complicated or important book. I like Doris Lessing and I liked reading this....more
Here's what I know: if a book features some old dude fucking some younger lady, check the author's age. 100% of the time, he's the same age as the oldHere's what I know: if a book features some old dude fucking some younger lady, check the author's age. 100% of the time, he's the same age as the old dude.
The younger woman will be vulnerable. She will be attracted to the older man's security and wisdom. There is a power imbalance, and it's basically the same thing as when Tarzan saves Jane from the lion. It's embarrassing, immature wish-fulfillment. And even when it's written very well, it's boring.
This book is occasionally written very well, but it also has the young lady dancing naked for like 20 pages while she babbles about free love. "Oh, I see you, Coleman. I could give you away my whole life and still have you. Just by dancing." Good luck getting through that bullshit. It suuuucks.
And you've heardthisstory before. Old guys complain that no one wants to read old guy authors. It's not because we're "politically correct." It's because old men can't shut up about their penises, and it's boring. The entire canon, as it was agreed on at some point by a bunch of old guys and their penises, is full of stories like this.
Coleman Silk, the protagonist of The Human Stain, is one of those old guys. He's the worst kind of college professor: the kind who tells you how to read a book. "Fossilized pedagogy," as a character we're not supposed to agree with calls it. Fuck you, it's my fucking book, I'll decide how to read it. If I decide to take "a feminist perspective on Euripides," then that's what happens. Euripides can take care of himself.
Silk is also of African-American descent; he's been "passing" as white his entire life. Ironically, he's disgraced by an unfortunately timed use of the word "spook." This is the one-sentence plot of the book: guy accused of racism is secretly black. It sounds interesting, but the problem is that Philip Roth thinks it's a metaphor.
He thinks it's a metaphor because he keeps getting accused of being an asshole. All his life, people have called Philip Roth all sorts of names. Misogynist, even anti-Semite. (Roth is Jewish.) He keeps getting accused of believing what his characters say. It's not me, he complains. "The thought of the novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection," he insists, "but in the plight he has invented for his characters."
Well, quite. The plight he has invented here is a young lady's vagina. Of course Philip Roth isn't Coleman Silk. He's his pimp....more
"That's not my baby," our protagonist tells us. "Her mittens are too fuzzy." The baby in question is brown. The previous baby was pink. We suspect our"That's not my baby," our protagonist tells us. "Her mittens are too fuzzy." The baby in question is brown. The previous baby was pink. We suspect our protagonist is making things more complicated than they need to be.
"That's not my baby," she continues. "Her teddy is too fluffy." We find it impossible to read this page without using our porno voices.
We sympathize with the protagonist, in a way. When we pick our baby up from day care, we sometimes have a moment when we think, "Oh shit: which one is ours?" Babies look similar. We look for the one who seems pleased to see us. We hope this has been a good strategy.
There are two brown babies at our day care. We know they are not ours, even though they are not wearing mittens.
Our baby, or anyway the one who is at our house, loves the last page where there is a mirror. He opens the book to that page and laughs and closes it again. He does this many times. Then he starts crying. We don't know why. Perhaps he has realized that he is not our baby. If so, we apologize. Your baby is very friendly. We're not saying this is all his fault. Some of it is our baby's fault. He should have been more pleased to see us....more
Here is the most famous slave narrative written by a woman. Jacobs isn't as polished as, say, Frederick Douglass, but she has a directness that's realHere is the most famous slave narrative written by a woman. Jacobs isn't as polished as, say, Frederick Douglass, but she has a directness that's really appealing, and a boldness that's sortof awesome. She writes unflinchingly about the widespread rape of slaves by white men. Douglass does too, but she focuses relentlessly on it. Incidents becomes a twisted mirror image of Pamela: this is how that book turns out if it's set in America and the serving woman is a slave.
What if Sister Carrie were black? ish? Harlem Renaissance author Jessie Redmon Fauset reminds me of no one more than Theodore Dreiser. Both are concerWhat if Sister Carrie were black? ish? Harlem Renaissance author Jessie Redmon Fauset reminds me of no one more than Theodore Dreiser. Both are concerned with single women trying to make it on their own terms, and neither is particularly skilled at writing. Dreiser is better - more powerful in the end, less susceptible to Victorian plot twists, and less moralistic.
Weird to say moralistic, given that Plum Bun advertises its lack of moral in the title, but the title is a lie: there are morals galore here, about pride in ancestry and the importance of family and proper behavior and what have you, and they're not subtle.
She began to see the conventions, the rules that govern life, in a new light; she realized suddenly that for all their granite-like coldness and precision they also represented fundamental facts; a sort of concentrated compendium of the art of living and therefore as much to be observed and respected as warm, vital impulses.
Maybe I should be comparing her to Jane Austen.
Passing, which is where a light-skinned black person decides to define herself as white, was of vivid interest to the Harlem Renaissance writers. It shows up in Nella Larsen's terrific Passing, the best treatment of it; it's also covered satirically in George Schuyler's Black No More, and awkwardly in Jean Toomer's actual life. We don't talk about it so much anymore. Both black and white people find it...what, gauche? I don't know. The last time I heard about passing was when Rachel Dolezal tried a reverse pass. (That's the woman who was head of the NAACP until her Caucasian parents released a statement like, hey, btw, let's make Thanksgiving awkward.) Given its frequent discussion a century ago, I would assume that many black people made this decision at some point previous, and now it's in the past, their families have been white for generations. Suck it racists, I guess?
We're still stuck on the idea that a drop of black blood makes one black, which is sortof weird and ugly. What if a person of mixed race, like Barack Obama, just declared that he was white? Why shouldn't he? The very definition of passing sucks.
Anyway, that's what Plum Bun is about. Fauset, who had siblings who could pass, is against it. Her protagonist, Angela Murray, (view spoiler)[learns over the course of the novel that she is happier acknowledging her African American ancestry. (hide spoiler)] This is all handled adequately well.
Plum Bun is at its best, though, describing loneliness. Here too there may be autobiographical elements: like Angela, Fauset moved alone to Harlem, and the poignancy of her description of loneliness in New York City feels very real. I loved these parts of the book.
Loneliness! Loneliness such as that offered by the great, noisy city could never be imagined. To realize it one would have to experience it.
They're not enough to make me love the whole thing, which totters into Victorian melodrama at a certain point and then proceeds to drown in it. Angela's sister Virginia (view spoiler)[just happens to stumble heartbroken into Angela's crush Anthony's room, of all the rooms in the entire city, after being cut by Angela at the train station. In the end, everything gets tied up all too neatly with an almost literal bow, as Anthony arrives at Angela's door in Paris on Christmas Eve: "'There ought to be a tag on me somewhere,' he remarked apologetically, 'but anyhow Virginia and Matthew send me with their love.'" It's sweet, but come on now. (hide spoiler)]
Colson Whitehead broke into the big leagues with this book, which was the consensus best novel of 2016. I thought it was pretty good.
Whitehead plays wColson Whitehead broke into the big leagues with this book, which was the consensus best novel of 2016. I thought it was pretty good.
Whitehead plays with genre. Zone One is about zombies; The Intuitionist is science fiction. Here he's digging into slave narratives. There's a parade of tropes familiar from the literature of slavery: the middle passage, medical experimentation, women trapped in attics. It's exciting and very plotty: this would be a good book to read if you want to be Readin' Good Literature, but you secretly just like exciting stories. I'm not sure there's a whole lot of depth to it. Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing (also from 2016, also on every Best Of list) is also a tour of African American themes, but it has more wisdom in it and I think it's a better book.
There's some hoopla about Underground Railroad's use of magical realism, but it's restricted to one thing: the underground railroad itself is presented literally, as a railroad underground. I like that, because when I was a kid I thought that's what it really was. But what's the point? It's imaginative, but it's just a mechanism to get us from one scene to the next....more
"A single book created the “bodice ripper” as a concept and cultural phenomenon: 1972's The Flame and the Flower. Written by Midwestern homemaker Kath"A single book created the “bodice ripper” as a concept and cultural phenomenon: 1972's The Flame and the Flower. Written by Midwestern homemaker Kathleen Woodiwiss and published by Avon, the novel is widely considered to be the first sexually explicit romance novel, released just as the second wave of the feminist movement was cresting."
This was a gift from the lovely Jennifer D. and it's my favorite book to read to my baby. It's simple and joyous and the illustrations are beautiful.This was a gift from the lovely Jennifer D. and it's my favorite book to read to my baby. It's simple and joyous and the illustrations are beautiful. It manages to be sweet without being sentimental. (I mean, not too sentimental...the bar is set at Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You, so that's pretty low.)
"Let's all dance, let's all sing"
and you're like yeah, my dog gets overexcited too. That's exactly what this is like....more
Gertrude Stein mounted a sustained attack on language from her salon in Paris, where Ernest Hemingway came to learn most of what he knew about writingGertrude Stein mounted a sustained attack on language from her salon in Paris, where Ernest Hemingway came to learn most of what he knew about writing on her knee. Hers was one of the great artistic circles: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Pablo Picasso were also part of her dazzlingly dangerous scene. She was a major influence on modernism.
Picasso painted her, too, and here she is.
What she isn't is a very good writer herself - at least not here, in this unsettling, unfriendly, experimental book. (And this is supposed to be her easiest one!) It feels more like a thesis statement than a book, like Stein couldn't possibly have meant it to be read so much as referred to. Hemingway learned his simple language from her, but his big emotions come through readily. Stein's are so obstinately buried that it seems perverse. Hemingway famously said of Faulkner,
"Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use."
Gertrude Stein knows the simpler words too, and she seems to be limiting herself to about ten of them. Each of her three characters gets a few descriptors (she called them insistences). Anna "led an arduous and troubled life," in which the widow Mrs. Lehntman "was the only romance Anna ever knew." Melanctha is “graceful, pale yellow, intelligent, attractive," with "breakneck courage." Lena is "gentle" and "patient." These attributes get repeated, word-for-word, over and over, as though Stein is mocking the very idea of writing.
Melanctha's story, the middle and longest one, is the most annoying. (Of course, this means that English professors also think it's the most brilliant one.) Most of the story is Melanctha fighting with her pain-in-the-ass boyfriend, who is boring and won't shut up. She's basically settling for him because he's a doctor, which, like, fair enough but she should just marry him and then murder him in his sleep like a regular person. Melanctha and Jeff have these endless, circular, repetitious arguments, and of course that is exactly what real relationships are like, so...great? But the thing with literature is that I want it to be both true and interesting, and Stein appears to have missed that second part.
Also Stein thinks there's a "simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people," so you're gonna have to hear about that.
The other two are easier to get through, and if you're super into cult landmark lit, go for it. Stein has her fans. Virginia Woolf was one: according to Michael Schmidt,
[Woolf] sets the image of the clock ticking at the heart of fiction: Emily Bronte tried to conceal it, Sterne turned it upside down, Proust kept changing the hands to make things happen at the same time. Stein destroys it altogether, and when the clock is broken, syntax and all the other pacing elements perish with it.
Which actually isn't definitely praise. Schmidt himself resorts to phrases like "patternings of parataxis" to describe her, and here we are with a writer who only uses ten words but requires everyone else to dredge up shit like "parataxis" to talk about them and, y'know, I'm not sure this is a conversation I need to be a part of....more
Deep in the bowels of libraries, past the celebrity memoirs and adventure stories, tattered in the stacks, there are dark things: books that are activDeep in the bowels of libraries, past the celebrity memoirs and adventure stories, tattered in the stacks, there are dark things: books that are actively, overtly dangerous. Here's one now.
Frantz Fanon's 1961 classic The Wretched of the Earth is about violence; it champions violence. It's a manual on how to be violent. Fanon is a genius, so it's seductive. It's like The Prince for African revolutionaries: concerned not with your bourgeois "morals" but with results. Here, let's summarize it with a Game of Thrones gif. (That's what the kids are doing, right?)
This is a little bit of an oversimplification, some recent defenders say. Fanon (France FAN-un, less difficult than I thought it would be) isn't advocating violence for violence's sake; he wouldn't choose violence if he thought there was another option. He just thinks nonviolence is absurd. He sees violence as an inevitable response to colonialism, which is by definition violent. It's not that he's rooting for it; it's that he sees it. "The exploited realize that their liberation implies using every means available, and force is the first."
And yet. When someone writes as eloquently and convincingly that violence is the first option, he is championing it. "Decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives," he says. "For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists."
Mandela in South Africa would show, decades after Fanon's death in 1961, that nonviolence can (sortof) work*. Fanon was dismissive of leaders like Mandela. “The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps,” he said, inaccurately. He was all prole, all the time. "In the colonial countries only the peasantry is revolutionary. It has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The underprivileged and starving peasant is the exploited who very soon realizes that only violence pays.” But peasant-led revolutions have not always worked out super well either.
Fanon, who fought for the native Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria's revolution, knew first-hand how quickly violence turns on itself. He found himself accusing the French of massacring 300 civilians in 1957; his own FLN was in fact responsible. It's unclear whether he knew that at the time. When you plunge your hands into blood, they get bloody.
Jean-Paul Sartre, a supporter who wrote the preface to this book, says it baldly:
“Get this into your head: if violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve the conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thoughts, is governed by a thousand-year old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors.”
This is not true, but it describes a truth. Some people, faced with violence, will respond with violence. It's okay to get all judgey about that, as long as you were even more judgey about the original violence. If you weren't pissed off about that, you should ask yourself which side you're on.
And if you choose violence yourself, here are your operating instructions. They're dangerous....more