The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

Review:

The Fire Next Time - James Baldwin

There they (police officers) stood, in twos and threes and fours, in their Cub Scout uniforms and with their Cub Scout faces, totally unprepared, as is the way with American he-men, for anything that could not be settled with a club or a fist or a gun.

Terrible how much this text is still relevant, might have been written today. This would not have surprised Baldwin–he acknowledges more than once that things may never change in America–though I imagine it might have saddened him.

The Fire Next Time contains two separate nonfiction pieces, one a letter to Baldwin’s nephew, the sort of message or discussion African Americans have with their younger family members that white people don’t. The second is an elegant “Letter from a Region in My Mind” that explores the author’s coming to (and leaving) religion as a way to discuss race and racism in America. It is, ostensibly, a solution, though perhaps an impossible one.

I couldn’t possibly capture Baldwin’s argument in a brief synopsis, nor do I want to. His prose is beautiful and crystal clear, unflinching yet humane. He’s my favorite kind of arguer, one who acknowledges from where other points of view are coming while advocating for his own position. It’s been too long since I first read him, and I won’t make that mistake again.

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The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

Review:

After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother’s Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who’s just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother’s gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert’s first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari’s often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to “grow up,” to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell “stuff” that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there’s a man or not); we’re meant to help each other.

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After Birth, by Elisa Albert

DNF: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart

DNF not quite halfway through. In the beginning I was impressed by the fine line this book walks between annoyance and charm. The word I thought of to best describe it was “rambunctious.” Then I thought, “Will this ‘rambunction’ get old?” And it basically did. Or maybe I’m just not in the mood for satire of life 15+ years ago when the present is even crazier. Like, we’re living a satire right now. I will say I enjoyed the physicality that Shteyngart revels in; that’s rare. On the other hand, I could do without the meta quality, references to an author with a name like Shteyngart’s who published a novel that sounds like his debut novel.

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DNF: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li

Review:

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life - Yiyun Li

Reading Li’s memoir was a unique experience, or perhaps one so rare I can’t remember the last time I had it. It challenged me to think not only about her as a writer and reader, but about myself as a writer and reader. I highlighted tons of passages, brief and long. I read the book slowly because I frequently needed to pause and evaluate Li’s notions of self, writing, and reading, often all essentially the same thing, against what I believe or thought I believed.

Early on, Li notes that she does not like using first person. It is unavoidable in this type of work, but she uses “one” elsewhere, as in, “One hides something for two reasons: either one feels protective of it or one feels ashamed of it. And it is not always the case that the two possibilities can be separated.” I found that it functioned much like second person (“you”) where it assumes the reader’s agreement. Having read the book, I can’t think that was Li’s intention, but it created an at times adversarial stance from which I judged her obviously personal claims. This isn’t a critique, only an observation of the sort I don’t make often. In a way, then, it’s a compliment.

Because Li in part is writing about writing, I put it on a mental list of texts I’d love to assign in a creative writing workshop. Though my genre is poetry (and fiction after that), its insights apply to any genre. “To write,” she says, “betrays one’s instinct to curl up and hide.” Upon that I can easily agree.

 

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Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li

NaPoWriMo Final Update

I have officially completed the National/Global Poetry Writing Month challenge, having drafted my 30th and final poem of the month this morning.

30 POEMS.

I had to type that twice because the first time shocked me. I wrote 30 poems. In a month. That may not seem incredible, but it is for me. I’m notoriously unprolific. Doing this challenge has showed me that, yep, I’ve just been letting myself off the hook and that I can write more and more frequently. It’s also helped me fight my perfectionist tendencies, as I told myself I was drafting poems, to be revised later. Now I can go back, reread, and revise. I fought the impulse to reread during the challenge but admit I skimmed back through once or twice.

I also only sort of cheated once, within the last week, when what I wrote was more like notes towards a draft rather than an actual draft. I don’t feel (too) guilty about it.

Because 30 poems!

As for reading, I’m still slowly making my way through Szymborska’s collected poems (I’m somewhere in the ’70s). Next I will definitely delve into U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s work; I just heard her speak on NPR, and I can see we share similar views on poetry, its role, and how to approach poems. I’m also thinking it would be a good time to get reading poetry craft/theory again.

Wish me luck on my revisions! Hopefully I’ll get sending some of these babies out to journals. I’ll be happy to share links or publication notices if any are accepted.

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NaPoWriMo Final Update

The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry

Review:

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World - Elaine Scarry

Probably I should officially consider this a DNF, but I did at least skim the last section, so… This was perhaps a case of waiting too long to read a text I became interested in when a graduate student. At that time, I was regularly reading scholarly work either as assigned in class or for projects for those classes. But I graduated in 2012, and my brain as a reader is generally in a different gear.

I read some of Scarry’s other works in my program but was specifically interested in The Body in Pain because I read the opening pages and was drawn in by the discussion of the inexpressibility of pain. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’m a migraineur, so I tend to take note of topics related to pain. Then as a writer I’m naturally also fascinated by works addressing communication and creativity.

Earlier sections on torture, making, and unmaking were worth the tough read, but the second section delves into biblical and Marxist texts, neither of which are in my wheelhouse. I gave myself permission to skim as, let’s face it, I’m not likely to end up writing a scholarly paper on the topic.

I thought it unfair to rate what I essentially DNF. I’ll say that Scarry’s work in general can be unique, surprising, and compelling, but I don’t always buy her premises.

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The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson

Review:

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition - Paul Watson

This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on the multitude of searches conducted to find the lost Franklin expedition rather than on the expedition itself, though of course early chapters offer context. As a fellow obsessive, it’s worth asking why this lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage has generated so much interest and so many searches over the years. It certainly wasn’t the only lost voyage.

One answer is Franklin’s wife, Jane, whose tenacity and devotion was the force behind many of the search efforts. What I didn’t know, and this book details, is that Lady Franklin was an explorer and adventuress in her own right. She’d have gone on a voyage to the Arctic herself if she hadn’t been prevented. Her efforts extended to seances and mediums, popular at the time in Britain; a few turned out to be uncannily accurate.

However, one of the clearest explanations why it took so long to find the two ships (both recently discovered at the bottom of the Arctic in 2014 and 2016) is that Inuit witnesses were ignored or misunderstood (in fact, Charles Dickens penned an incredibly racist rant once it was revealed via the Inuit that some men of the expedition resorted to cannibalism). Another strength of this book is that it gives these figures and their culture their due. However, I was put off a few times by Watson’s language, which could go heavy on the “magical native” trope (at one point there’s a “mystical glint” in an Inuit’s eye).

I appreciated that in addition to citing those who traveled to the Arctic or gave information on the expedition’s fate, Watson also highlights those whose inventions and pioneering aided in searches. He also unequivocally connects climate change with the discoveries of the ships; ironically, after many lives lost searching for it in the past, a Northwest Passage is now feasible due to the melting of Arctic ice. Canada, Russia, and the United States, along with Britain, were heavily invested in these expeditions and their recovery because a passage would be so lucrative. So…there’s the bright side?

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Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson