I started reading George Pelecanos novels because he was one of the writers on HBO’s The Wire. Specifically, he gets the writing credit on the episode that has what still feels to me, 15 years later, like the saddest moment I have ever watched on television, and perhaps the truest evocation of the catharsis of tragedy I have ever encountered: the second-to-last episode of the first season, on which an until-then not-really-central character is murdered by his friends. Pelecanos also wrote the second-to-last episode of the 3rd season, where something very similar happens, arguably with even greater heft. In my mind, Pelecanos’s name came to hold such power that when I was watching season 4, and the opening credits finished, and it said “Written by George Pelecanos” I became scared and sad , because I suspected something profoundly tragic was going to go down (it did).
I figured that anyone who could have written those moments for television, it was worth reading what they could write in a novel. Continue reading
Created by politics, culture, and consciousness, our possessive investment in whiteness can be altered by those same processes, but only if we face the hard facts openly and honestly and admit that whiteness is a matter of interests as well as attitudes, that it has more to with property than with pigment.
It’s often said that white people talking to white people is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for dismantling racism in the United States. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness is an entry into this discussion. George Lipsitz identifies his own social location, making connections to his upbringing as white, Jewish, and middle class, while he delivers a critical understanding of how racism works through the exploration of the idea of whiteness. The principal move he makes in this book is to posit whiteness not only, or even primarily, as a set of attitudes, but instead also as a set of possessions: first, there is the literal possession of real estate (and other attendant) forms of material wealth that are distributed racially unequally in the United States. Continue reading
I have read 40 books this year. This one was the best. You should read it.
If you are a White liberal and you think you know what “identity politics” means and are very clear about why you think it’s a “distraction” from “more pressing economic concerns,” I implore you, as one who used to be among your number, to read this book and let it change your mind.
I say that as someone who had read some the essays collected in this volume. At the outset, I was wondering whether it would be worth my time. Continue reading
I believe this is the first book labelled as “Young Adult” I have ever read – when I was a kid, when I was a young adult, now. It’s not that when I was younger I read lots of “grownup” books – it’s more that I didn’t read. It’s also not that I have anything against them now, it just hadn’t happened yet. 40 seems like as a good year as any to break that streak.
I read this because two of my classes wanted to read it. Actually, two of my classes wanted to re-read it. A good number of them read it when they were freshmen. Which is interesting in itself – when given a choice among books to read in this unit (since it’s a unit about Native American literature, our Book Distribution Center owns three titles, two by Serman Alexie, so not really much of a choice), they picked this. Some teachers react with cynicism – like the kids are just trying to get out of work. I see it differently: this is a text they are comfortable with, one they are willing to learn more from. And since the kid I spend the most time with right now is 3, I know that “re-reading” is sort of the point. I have literally read Green Eggs and Ham nearly one hundred times. Sam doesn’t like it any less time #47 that #1 – in fact, he probably likes it much more now. And to be more “grownup” again, when I go to church, it’s not like I tune out during the Bible readings because they come back every few years. Again, in a different way, that’s sort of the point.
Usually when I read books because someone else wants me to, I experience it as a huge burden. That didn’t happen here. For the first few pages, I felt that tug, Continue reading
Sometime last year I read The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s speculative historical fictional piece which asks what if that railroad were a railroad, and underground? That premise opened up into a very present-regarding look at how people and social structures work (or don’t) under oppressive conditions. It also had a sense of the uncanny about it – that though the premise was absurd its descriptions felt visceral and real.
So I thought I’d read something else by Whitehead, and found The Intuitionist. If you tore the cover off of this book, and I read it in some kind of blind taste-test situation, I am quite sure I would have insisted that the first 50 pages had been written by David Foster Wallace. Continue reading
This was one of those books I ended up reading because is has recently been made into a movie (actually TV show). But I’ve done this before – decided to read something because other people were watching it (then I usually don’t see the movie/show) . I remember reading Sense and Sensibility for the first time when the Emma Thompson movie came out. I also read this because a friend of mine and I have this book group (a book group of two, but a book group nonetheless). This is also definitely one of those “should have read” kind of books, considering how often it comes up, and that it’s more than 30 years old.
The first thing I want to say was my friend’s idea, not mine, but he’s absolutely right: this is a book in which the actual events are fictional, but in which almost everything included, save for a couple of awkward physical details, has happened in some place or time, just not all together. Continue reading
For some reason, Volume 6 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been delayed until next year. Having read and enjoyed the first five (I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with them – they’re good, I like reading them, I look forward to the final volume), I turned to Autumn not knowing what to expect. It’s still in the first-person, and that person is still apparently Karl Ove himself, still talking about the family and friends he’s written about in My Struggle.
The biggest difference is that rather than the extended, digressive and time-hopping Proustian personal saga of those volumes, we have here their seeming opposite: 2-3 page prose poems about various mundane subjects like “bottles” and “cans,” or more affecting ones, like “eyes” or “death.”
Now the “prose poem” is a suspect genre itself, a slippery middle stance memorably satirized by David Foster Wallace. And there is some that is worthy of that satire here – the pattern itself does wear thin sometimes as we move from totally quotidian, exacting description of, say, a stick of gum, and then moving onward to a final, overreaching generalization about life and finitude. There is actually a moment where anyone who lived through the late 90’s will wonder if American Beauty is actually being quoted directly when Knausgaard writes these words:
One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen was a plastic bag adrift in the water beyond a jetty on an island far out at sea (18).
In American Beauty this moment was clever because it allowed us to chuckle just a little at the naive teenage idealism of its speaker, but what can we do with it here? Continue reading
Though more than 1.3 billion people live in China, I am embarrassed to say that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of three books I’ve read that have any sustained connection to that country. The other two are The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, both by Amy Tan. And I’m not 100% I read those all the way through.
All of which is to say that when I started to read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had some trouble acquainting myself with simple things, like naming conventions and geography. The book does present itself as a puzzle, at least initially, so I don’t think my confusion was all attributable to my ignorance about China. The book is coiled up, its time sequence spiraling rather than progressing linearly, and so initially, characters are presented in a confusing jumble that over time comes into focus. Though I usually pride myself on not needing help, I did spend some time flipping to the family tree in the front.
If you stretched out that coil and rearranged the events (which would, of course, vitiate the effect of reading the book) what you’d see before you would be, in some ways, a conventional family-cultural saga like War and Peace, stretching from the 1948 civil war, through the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and Tienanmen Square massacre. It is narrated by the daughter of one of the principal characters, whose family has since immigrated to Canada. The title is an ironic invocation of a line from a Communist Party song, and hovers ambiguously over the book’s pages, playing with meaning in suggestive but unresolved layers. Continue reading
“The American situation is very peculiar and it may be without precedent in the world. No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide” (James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt”)
One of my earliest James Baldwin reading experiences was “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story that forms the centerpiece of Going to Meet the Man, a collection of eight short stories Baldwin wrote between 1948 and 1965. Since work starts up again for me next week, this will be the last installment for a while. It’s also a natural stopping point as it finishes off the first of the 2-volume Library of America fiction collection of Baldwin’s work.
The words of “My Dungeon Shook” ring in my ears almost every single day. Somehow the centerpiece of that ringing is a simple imperative sentence about 3/4 of the way through the final, two-page paragraph:
You, don’t be afraid.
That paragraph, itself, lays out almost every needed inch of the conceptual and emotional terrain needed to make critically informed arguments about race, but does so without a single footnote or 50-cent word. The sentences are long, but not so as to be confusing or abstract, but instead, they’re the long sentences people really speak in, when they’re not trying to do the things their high school English teachers taught them.
They are also the words, if I recall correctly, with which Michelle Alexander chooses to end The New Jim Crow. Considering just how chocked full of statistics and policy details that book is, it’s a stunning decision on her part, but if you’re read both, it makes perfect sense. Baldwin is well aware of every one of those policies (or their 1960’s equivalents) – his writing is very clearly informed by them, though it does not inform its readers about them, sticking in emotional and personal registers to accomplish something similar.