My September book reviews include the latest from a recently announced MacArthur “genius” award winner, a memoir by a very funny woman, a rollicking sword & sorcery adventure, and a powerful book of poems
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a necessary book. Written as a letter to his son, it addresses the issues of race and the American Dream. There are important themes and concepts that occur throughout the book, some of which are a culmination of his writing for the past few years. It seems like a reader who is not familiar with the questions he’s been asking, who enters the book with no prior knowledge might be at a disadvantage (like a kid reading Marvel’s Secret Wars back in the day). But maybe getting lost in the concepts could be good. Sink or swim. I know there have been plenty of books where I didn’t know the first thing that I figured out along the way. In this case, it’s important to understand the idea of race as a social construct (i.e. racial categories only have meaning because we as a society have given them meaning). Over and over again, Coates refers to “people who believe they are white” (a paraphrase of James Baldwin). It’s a belief, not something innate to who we are. It’s easy to see how mutable the categories are, how they change over time and from place to place. Another theme is “the Dream,” an unreal fantasy of a perfect life in the suburbs, safe from all harm. It’s a dream that is built on lies and false consciousness, turning a blind eye to history. Coates implores his son: “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (108). I took this to be the overall message of the book, too. To live in the Dream is to deny that housing discrimination has damaged black people, to accept that the criminal justice system is applied fairly in this country, and to believe that poverty is always the fault of the poor. In short, it is to look at the world uncritically with no sense of history. Coates tells his own story to his son of how he grew up on the streets of Baltimore and then attended Howard University. He left college before finishing a degree, noting that he “was made for the library, not the classroom” (48). He was and is a voracious learner. I’ve been reading his blog at The Atlantic for years now as he has wrestled with ideas, culminating in recent articles on housing and incarceration, and this moving book. I mentioned way back in the introduction to this blog that Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me. He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility. He always makes me think. I highly recommend his book and his other writing.
- Yes Please by Amy Poehler is a funny memoir, full of funny stories and observations about her beginnings in improv comedy, her friendships with Tina Fey and Seth Meyers, bad jobs, bad drugs, parenting and family, technology, and life in show business. Any fan of Poehler will find a lot to like and laugh about/with. I liked the funny bits, but I think I liked some of the more serious parts best. At the beginning she talks about how hard it was to write a book. I started to write out a quote about writing, but then I took a picture with my phone of the paragraph because it was easier (despite my often writing longhand, with pen and a legal pad). The gist of it is that writing is hard work. Using a shortcut to writing out the quote also fits with the last chapter of the book where she talks about how phones (as a stand-in for all technology) will kill us all. It’s a funny bit on dystopian Skynet handwringing, but it’s true how technology can take us out of the moment and put barriers between people even as it is supposedly connecting us via social networks. I also liked her story of apologizing for an SNL sketch that crossed the line (it had made fun of a young woman with cerebral palsy). In retelling the incident, she reveals her pride and anger when she tries to justify herself (she didn’t write it, she didn’t know beforehand that it was about a real person, etc.), but also her willingness to make things right years after the fact by apologizing. It’s a very hopeful and real story. Unfortunately, I didn’t care as much for her story of her Haiti trip to visit orphanages after the earthquake. She doesn’t say anything wrong, but it still made me uneasy. She was in the aftermath of her own divorce, and despite her goodwill and intentions, the story feels self-indulgent. It’s about her and how it affected her, but maybe there’s no escaping that. Maybe that’s the only window we can use sometimes to see the tragedies outside our narrow view.
- Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is a tremendously fun fantasy novel set in a world like that of the Arabian Nights. It’s a world with sword-wielding dervishes, an evil manjackal, a portly ghul-hunter, and a Robin Hood type fomenting revolution in the capital city. It might sound a little hokey, and it might be if you don’t care for sword and sorcery fiction, but the plot is tight and the characters interesting (if rather flat, given the nature of the story). The narration takes turns examining the points of view of the various main characters, and they have reasonably interesting if predictable back stories: the ghul-hunter is the world weary ready to retire type, and his sidekick the dervish is young and a bit of a religious zealot. They’re soon joined by a shape-shifting young woman (she can take the form of a lion) from one of the nomadic tribes outside of the capital city. Later they are aided by a foreign born magus and alkhemist husband and wife duo. The motley crew is trying to figure out a new evil the likes of which the ghul-hunter has never seen before, all while negotiating the politics of a religious city-state. I liked that the religious aspects weren’t just an add-on to the culture that had been created. The characters clearly had real religious beliefs and quoted scriptures to each other, though they each had a different take on God and belief. Overall, it was a very fun and quick (only 273 pages!) fantasy novel in a genre that can often take many huge volumes to tell a story. It does say on the inside jacket that it is Book One of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, but the story has a clear ending at the end of the book. I can easily imagine Ahmed setting more future stories in the exciting world he has built.
- Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a searing and thought provoking, although sometimes frustrating, book of poems, largely about life in America as a person of color. The first thing I noticed is that these are prose poems, often one paragraph of text on a page, each a little scene. I haven’t read many prose poems before, but it worked for much of the book. The second thing I noticed is that the poems are written in the second person, addressing the reader as “you,” which has the effect of drawing the reader in and making it a conversation with the speaker. It places the reader into the situation. The brief scenes or situations are little moments that communicate negative messages against the speaker or the person addressed (the reader, or “you”). These are commonly referred to as microaggressions. They might be entirely unintentional, but the snub or insult can still hurt. A few examples include accidentally being called the name of someone’s housekeeper or having a little girl not want to sit by you on an airplane. It’s not necessarily any one incident that does all the damage, it’s that they happen with regularity. If it were a onetime occurrence, you could shrug it off. But it wears a person down. There’s a whole section of the book that deals with the many racist incidents Serena Williams has had to deal with over the course of her career in tennis. The speaker is amazed that she holds back anger as well as she does. The first half of the book is strong, but I was frustrated by much of the second half. Many of the sections in the second half deal with recent events such as Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, and the Jena Six in a somewhat oblique manner. My frustration is probably my fault as a reader because I don’t know the history of some of these events well enough to understand her poems. I’m reminded of how little I understood T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land the first time (probably more like first dozen times) I read it, but that my understanding grew the more I grappled with it and its allusions. I feel like the same would happen with the later sections of Citizen, but they haven’t happened for me yet.