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Thursday, March 9, 2017

D. Watkins, THE BEAST SIDE: LIVING AND DYING WHILE BLACK IN AMERICA

Part of a new series called "Hot Books," edited by former editor-in-chief of Salon David Talbot, this collection of essays was written by a young man, D. Watkins, who once dealt crack on the east side of Baltimore but eventually found his way to Johns Hopkins where he earned a master's in education. His essays outline the many reasons blacks in Baltimore, and other cities, are struggling to escape the cycles of drugs, poverty, poor education, and violence. The writing is raw and heartfelt; the statistics about literacy rates (e.g., only 7% of black 8th-grade boys in Baltimore read at grade level) and murders alarming; his observations shrewd; and his descriptions of his experience are variously poignant, heartrending, and infuriating. He describes people so poor they eat cereal with a fork to make sure there's enough milk for the last bite. The schools have metal bars on the windows, metal detectors, classes of up to 50 students, and subs that sit on their phone the whole time while chaos erupts around them; is it any wonder the schools are seen by some as feeders the private, for-profit prison systems? The drug-dealers work 80-90 hours a week, hustling; in fact, there's a lot of hustle going on, mostly illegal, but these people know how to work. Poverty is not the same as laziness, he insists. What's easy and hard are completely flipped around in this environment: "It's easier to get a gun than a job in east Baltimore. I went to Fat Hands's and Naked's crib with $300 and came out with a two-toned .45 ..." But he has antidotes, the first one being: "Simple communication, which I perfected at Hopkins, was the key Underneath it all,  found, the privileged whites and Asians at Hopkins were the same as the black dudes in my neighborhood. We all wanted love, success, purpose, and opportunity. ... Learning how to communicate with people so far removed from my reality made me smarter. ..."
This is a very quick but important read. I'd strongly recommend for anyone who is thinking about race, education, and public policy in America.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Anne Tyler, A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD

I enjoyed it, but it was an unusual book. There's very little by way of a plot arc; it represents a tangled web of four generations of a family; there are no main characters, really, and not much in the way of character change or development. To some extent, what develops is the sense (for the reader) that every character in this story has a different, competing, and at times contradictory story about the family and events. Sometimes the tales are wildly at odds: the grandmother Linnie Mae constructed a Romeo-and-Juliet narrative in which at age 13, she was kept from her (26-year-old) boyfriend for five years and then, when she was 18, followed him to Baltimore, having saved her money and believing that he has carried a torch for her all that time; but when she calls him from the bus station, he gropes for a memory of her, nearly refuses to pick her up, and doesn't want her to stay. So to some extent, this is a book about the narratives individuals construct in their heads about their web of family, in order to preserve their selves, to protect their personal Truths (or Lies). The one character who seems to change is Denny, but his change is not demonstrated throughout and the sign of it is tucked in on the fourth page from the end.  However, Tyler is a genius at representing the tiny interactions between characters and describing characters: "He was a brash and hasty man in all other areas of life, a man who coasted through stop signs without so much as a toe on the brake, a man who bolted his food and guzzled his drinks and ordered a stammering child to 'come on, spit it out,' but when it came to constructing a house he had all the patience in the world."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Elizabeth Kostova, THE SWAN THIEVES

I enjoyed this one. At the heart of it is an event that happened back in 1879; I always like the novels that have a solid backstory and good research on a topic (here, it's art and a bit on the turmoil in France in the 1870s after the Prussian war); and I didn't mind that it's sort of a "baggy monster" like a Victorian novel. It's four stories, braided together: a manic-depressive but magnetic painter who comes to a psychiatrist for help after he slashes at a painting in the National Gallery; the psychiatrist/sleuth who is interviewing the painter's wife, his ex, etc., to figure out why because the painter isn't speaking; a romance, told in letters, between two painters in 1878; the psychiatrist's own romance. You'd think it would be a lot to juggle, but it all works; and while the "troubled patient who's not speaking" as motive for sleuthing has been done before, it doesn't seem contrived. Kostova has some lovely phrases: "the inevitability of [his desire] catches tightly in her rib cage"; "she senses something out of place in Gilbert Thomas, something loose and hard that rattles around inside him"; "the roadsides became crowded with evergreens, which pressed in on either side like armies of giants." I'll definitely give her others a try.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Michael Chabon, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY

I started this book about ten years ago and--for some reason--set it aside. After reading Chabon's *Moonglow* last month, I thought, hm, maybe I'll give it another try. I have NO IDEA what I didn't see the first time around. This book is big-hearted, beautifully written, by turns playful (without being writerly "clever") and poignant without being cloying. Six hundred pages of type that is so small I had to use cheaters, but I couldn't put it down. After the second day of reading, I started dreaming about it.

Young Sammy Klayman lives in Brooklyn in the late 1930s; his cousin Josef Kavalier barely escapes from Czechoslovakia as the borders close under the Nazis, and makes his way to Brooklyn. Together the boys become a comic book-writing team, evolve as artists, and survive WWII and heartbreaking loss. But this synopsis doesn't do the book justice. Think magic (Houdini, not Harry Potter), comic books, censorship, friendship, war, love, loss, homosexuality, anti-Semitism, forgiveness, secrets. 

A don't miss.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Trevor Noah, BORN A CRIME: STORIES FROM A SOUTH AFRICAN CHILDHOOD

I'm so lame about late-night pop culture that I didn't even know Trevor Noah was the replacement for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show until I read the reviews. (I go to sleep too early, apparently.) 

This book is about a boy growing up mixed-race in apartheid South Africa and as the country transitions out of apartheid. Other comments mention that we should listen to this book because Noah has such an engaging voice. It comes across on the page as well; I felt as if I were sitting next to him, and he was telling me his story. And it's a shocking one that both shows the raw particularity of his own experience and (without preaching at all) illuminates Western (US) frames of reference by contrasts. While his mother makes some mistakes in judgment, she is the book's heroine; she loves her son fiercely; she also understands the nature of the place where they live. When she is beaten by her husband Abel (a true villain), she tries to file a report with the police; they refuse, again and again to accept it. (I felt my frustration growing each time.) The police wave her away, expressing sympathy for Abel, agreeing how irritating women can be. When Abel finally attempts to murder her (and nearly succeeds), shooting her with a gun twice, he walks free because he has no priors. Early on, she explains to Trevor, after he was taken to jail for (not) stealing a car: "Everything I have ever done, I've done from a place of love. If I don't punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn't love you. If the police get you, the police don't love you. When I beat you, I'm trying to save you. When they beat you, they're trying to kill you." Another example of a Western frame of reference that doesn't hold up in SA: Noah makes the point that every culture has its villain--the person they'd like to go back in time and erase. For the Congo, it's King Leopold of Belgium whose exploitation of the Congo for ivory and rubber led to the death of 10 million Congolese. For South Africa, it's Cecil Rhodes. Hitler isn't the villain we (in the West) know so well; he is "not the worst thing a black South African can imagine." There's a boy named Hitler who's a fabulous dancer, who accompanies Noah to the parties where Noah DJs with his pirated CDs. Noah makes the point also that because he fit in nowhere (being of mixed race), he had to find ways to fit in everywhere. He does that through (as you'd expect) humor, but also salesmanship, entrepreneurship, and language--because there are nearly a dozen "official" languages of South Africa, and the fact that Noah knows Tsonga from his stepfather may have saved his life in prison. He quotes Nelson Mandela in a passage I liked: 

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else's language, even if it's just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, "I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being." 

Another passage I read several times over:

People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." What they don't say is, "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod." That's the part of the analogy that's missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, "Okay, here's what you need, and here's how it works." Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say, "Oh, that's a handout." No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don't stand a chance without it.

The threads of empathy and understanding run through this book. It's a quick, thoroughly enjoyable read; I would say, don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Colson Whitehead, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Well worth reading. It's a heartbreaking story of Cora, a slave in the South, who attempts to escape the plantation, following her mother Mabel who (it is said) escaped years before, leaving her young daughter behind. In a way it reminds me of a picaresque, set in episodes, with Cora meeting a huge variety of people along the way. Whitehead's writing is beautiful and deft: "The house had been built fifty years before and the stairs creaked. A whisper in one room carried into the next two." "Ava was wiry and strong, with hands as quick as a cottonmouth." For me, what added to the painfulness of the read was the way he puts the most heartbreaking moments into the plainest, sparest prose, suggesting that all this cruelty and viciousness is all quite ordinary: "Cora started for the stairs but they complained reliably, warning her so often these last few months, that she knew she wouldn't be able to make it. She crawled under Martin's old bed and that's where they found her, snatching her ankles like irons and dragging her out. They tossed her down the stairs. She jammed her shoulder into the banister at the bottom. Her ears rang." The review in the New Yorker made the point that the book skewers the myth (that I heard in my earliest history classes) that the North was a land of tolerance, welcoming escaped slaves and helping them along. Whitehead's version of history shows that betrayals cross gender, age, race, and geography; they take every shape.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Michael Chabon, MOONGLOW

Chabon's writing is always adroit, economical, ambitious, inventive. But this book about his grandfather, drawn from conversations with his grandfather during his last six weeks of life, feels like the book he was always meant to write. Stunning, wide-ranging, poignant. The fact that Chabon and I both have a favorite Salinger short story--"For Esme, with Love and Squalor"--and that we have the SAME version of *Nine Stories* with the colored tiles on the cover made me smile.

There's plenty of praise and commentary on this novel already; so I will just mention just a few of my many favorite lines (even though plucking them out of context doesn't do them justice).

When the time came to leave for the synagogue, the only card my grandfather still held was to make himself disagreeable. Pick a fight and hope to be uninvited.

My grandparents forgave each other with the pragmatism of lovers in a plummeting airplane.

... a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams

"That lighter," [Sally said, about a silver cigarette lighter that had belonged to his grandfather's friend in WWII, and which his grandfather had passed on to Michael].
"There was as a story behind it," [Michael replied].
"I'm sure. All of his stories were stuck behind something."