Sunday, May 05, 2019

May 2019 in Books: What We'll Be Reading Next

Illustration from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
by W. W. Denslow
via Wikimedia Commons

"2019 in books: what you'll be reading this year"
The Guardian,
Saturday, January 5, 2019

May 6th will be the 100th anniversary of the death of L. Frank Baum, the American children's author who wrote the Wizard of Oz books, mentions The Guardian. We still have perhaps two-thirds of the series in our bookshelves, so I might take a look at them again.

Walt Whitman, the poet who foisted upon us (indirectly) the film Dead Poets' Society and who inspired much other art by writing Leaves of Grass, was born 200 years ago on May 31st.

As far as new books appearing this month, I feel drawn to the reprint of Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, edited by Bryan Karetnyk, that Penguin Classics will be releasing tomorrow. Also, having enjoyed a New York-centred novel for teenagers, The Poet X, read on an audiobook by the author, Elizabeth Acevedo, I'm looking forward to With the Fire on High.


The Poet X (2018), which I read on the recommendation of a colleague, is a series of fictional autobiographical poems written by a Dominican daughter of a Catholic family. Xiomara's passion for writing, her growing skepticism of the Catholic religion of her upbringing, and her anxiousness to break free from the rigid repression of her mother's household to venture further in both writing and in a relationship with a boy classmate, drive her away from her old life.

If I were to have read all the verse that I listened to per audiobook in a paper book, it might have felt weaker, because the print lacks the momentum and the authenticity that the author's voice gave it.

The heart of the book is slam poetry anyway, however, so it naturally lends itself best to a spoken performance.

Skimming through the Amazon preview, however, I see that even in printed form it is already pithy:
My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit in the pews
wearing pretty florals and a soft smile.
They got combat boots and a mouth silent
until it's sharp as an island machete.
In terms of other Young Adult books I've listened to these past few months, I felt that Angie Thomas's On the Come Up and The Hate U Give — because they see the fictional southern American suburban "ghetto" of Garden Heights in a more detailed and encompassing way than Acevedo's Bronx — were more ambitious than Acevedo's book. But the principal characters in The Poet X are well and ably sketched, although the marginal 'extras' are a bit of a lost opportunity. For example:
Shake my head as even the drug dealers posted up
near the building smile more in the summer, their hard scowls
softening into glue-eyed stares in the direction

of the girls in summer dresses and short shorts
In On the Come Up or The Hate U Give, we're likely to be told about what the dealers' families are like, why they're selling drugs, who has the dealers under their thumb and how likely the dealers are to escape from gang affiliations and this livelihood if they want to escape.

We'll know which hobbies and childhood plans are stored on the other side of the line that separates law from law-breaking, where the dealers' ethical boundaries lie, where the balance is between joy at a generous income and distaste at its origin, what their family, friends, and neighbours think of their dealing, and what happens to the neighbourhood.

In Acevedo's book, as far as I recall the only thing we know is that they're sleazy and physically threatening. All of this is no reflection on her writing, because she might be just faithfully writing what she knew. But it is a little sad that given a complex neighbourhood, the depiction of its humanity does not extend further, and that the world is separated into the proverbial sheep and the goats.

I like logical prose and understated self-description and careful similes, so the poetry is often wasted on me. For example,

Jesus feels like a friend
I've had my whole childhood
who has suddenly become brand-new;
who invites himself over too often, who texts me too much.
This doesn't seem like an apt comparison to me, if I'm being fastidious.

I think that Acevedo's book is also firmly anchored in a conservative world where well-inclined teachers are authorities to appeal to and imitate, and one can leave poverty by 'obeying the rules.' In Thomas's books, the teachers can be good or bad, but in both cases certainly don't know everything. Also, she's likelier to think that 'the rules' suck or don't work. On Friday, American politician Ilhan Omar Twitter-posted a quotation from Malcolm X:

I just don't believe that when people are being unjustly oppressed that they should let someone else set rules for them by which they can come out from under that oppression.
via Amazon
Thomas mentions Malcolm X in The Hate U Give, and I think she'd approve of this quotation. She also seems to believe, refreshingly, that teenagers even at 16 have the right to chart their own paths and morality independently of the adults (relatives or non-relatives) in their environment. I was worried about Acevedo's book because — in contrast to my own experience, at least — the relationship with the mother seemed so toxic that I wasn't sure if it was redeemable; but Xiomara's path forward still lay closely bound with her family, although the author does not condemn her impulse to flee them for a while.


To switch from The Poet X to On the Come Up, On the Come Up also worried me for different reasons. It seems to accept the instant celebrity that dominates the internet age; I'd have expected Angie Thomas to turn against that.

Bri, On the Come Up's protagonist, has worked to become a rapper for years, filling notebooks with her verse. I guess she has therefore earned the confidence to put her rap forward on YouTube and on the radio, and to seek a record deal. But it surprises me a great deal that the adult professionals didn't require her to do more training, or to receive more input from mentors or other professionals, so that her career would be more solidly grounded and versatile.

Besides, I suspect that instant fame — which Bri experiences — is so psychologically damaging that I can't imagine why it is still tolerated. Reality TV stars, parents of a murdered child, high school students who survived a bullet, someone who was in an internet meme — all of these people face a remorseless artillery of publicity and comment, which surely amounts to psychological torture and journalistic malpractice. Thomas might have experience with this herself, because she rose to fame meteorically once The Hate U Give was appreciated and accepted for publication; although she is not as young as her heroine, she was not yet 30 at that time. But the main criticism of fame she offers in On the Come Up is that words can be twisted against a rapper (or author), to allege horrible or at least dangerous messages that were never intended. This can lead to violence by people who see such messages where none exist, and to personal and professional reprisals against the unfortunate rapper or author.

But, to end the carping criticism, Thomas's and Acevedo's books spotlight a part of the American experience I rarely see described with such a ring of truth and of affectionate, firsthand knowledge. That is why I'm pleased about Acevedo's new book, mentioned above, which is about teenage pregnancy and will appear on May 7th; and pleased about Thomas's remarks on Twitter that she is working on a new novel.


Friday, March 29, 2019

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People - (Very) Rough Notes

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Bloomsbury published it in Britain in 2017, it became a bit of a trans-Atlantic phenomenon, I read it because it was mentioned in Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club, and now it has come out in a German-language translation. To celebrate, the German publisher Tropen Verlag held a book presentation event here in Berlin. I attended it on Wednesday, March 27th. The book is about racial bias in Britain and about how difficult it is for a black person to speak about racism, even with liberal people, because she or he will encounter so much resistance and misplaced guilt.

Apologies for the postmodernist presentation of these notes. In the end, I felt that it was the most direct and truthful representation of the event that I could muster; any attempt to string them together seemed to dump in more after-the-fact analysis that I can't be sure is accurate.

- 7 p.m.
- Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus, Friedrichstraße 90, in Berlin Mitte
- Friedrichstraße overground S-Bahn station, restaurants with glass façades, tourists, lights, after dark
- people milling about around islands of books segmented into genres, with stairs leading between 4 levels (5 including the café)
- stage in basement café (Kulturbühne?): capacity 200, overfilled
- overspill crowd in front of large video screen with good sound waiting to be let into basement, then realizing that we'd just be watching the screen, as previously announced on Facebook
- a portly older man in a suit grumbling that the high number of attendees was not good for security
- at least 2 ushers
- people sitting on the floor or standing in front of the screen
- young woman apologizing to friends for not joining them on time - she'd needed to finish work
- plurality of demographic likely young women, but plenty of young men and older men and women; no children except perhaps a baby that occasionally wailed
- at elevators and entrance to the English language books section, with vertical garden behind the screen

Image from Tropen Verlag [Klett-Cotta]

- Reni Eddo-Lodge sitting down with an elderly white German lady for the interview
- interviewer lists all the prizes the author had won, mentions that she had written a blog post and that it had gone viral (author later mentions that her blog was linked to Twitter, and it was the Twitter post that went viral and led to many people thanking her for saying what they'd been thinking)
- asks what was the conversation that was the breaking point and led to the book
- author replies that if one reads the chapter about all the frustrating conversations she had while being active in feminist circles, one would understand what led her to write it

- interviewer mentions that back in 1995 there was already a discussion about the repression of black voices in the feminist discourse (around a certain prize?)
- mention of author never having been taught about the British slave trade in school, just hearing about it in an elective course at university
- interviewer asks about author feeling isolated at university (a characterization the author takes issue with but that the interviewer insists is in the book) and wonders where the other black women were - they both talk about the bias that leads to there being very few black women in teaching roles at universities ('Let's say they shouldn't all get on the same airplane,' joked Reni Eddo-Lodge, before saying that there are about 20 [if I heard correctly])

- author stresses that she is not calling individual white people racists; she is saying that black people are disadvantaged by a system that people may not be conscious of. Black schoolchildren may be marked down by their teachers, for example, but this does not mean that the teachers are evil. It just means that they have a subconscious bias

- interviewer asks whether author felt frustrated that she had to use such violent language in her blog post to get her point across - author says that she does not feel her language was violent, perhaps "striking" [Note: reminded me of 'Angry Black Woman' stereotype, criticized e.g. by Audre Lorde in her 1981 speech "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism".]

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Marie Curie Through Her Daughter's Eyes

Madame Curie
by Ève Curie, transl. Vincent Sheean

Radium Girls
by Kate Moore
Simon & Schuster UK
(E-Book: 480 pp.)


In the poor household of a teacher, a mother who had died of tuberculosis as her children were still young, and five children, in Varsovian houses in a Poland considered as a property of the Tsar's Russia, Marie Curie grew up in conditions that were unlikely for a Nobel Laureate. Women could not study at the official universities in Poland in the 1880s, and the academic culture was stifled by Russian political control.

Warsaw: Orthodox Church (1890-1900)
"Postcard showing a 19th century view of the Orthodox Church of
the Holy Trinity in Warsaw. Today the church serves as
the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army."
Marie Curie lost her faith after her mother
and one of her sisters died, early in her life.
via Wikimedia Commons
Even as Marie grew older, poverty vexed her as well as the lack of academic opportunity. Her family had made ends meet by renting out rooms to boarders, and through the teaching salary of the father. But the four remaining children (the eldest child died from a childhood illness) soon had to earn wages to educate, feed and shelter themselves.

Marie became a governess. Her job in the Polish countryside ended badly as she and the older brother of her charges fell in love; they were forbidden to marry by the young man's parents, and although she kept earning money there until there was another job for her, she felt her own intellectual development and self-education becoming sluggish. She fell into what I suspect was a depression. Marie had decided with her elder sister Bronisława (Bronya for short) that Bronya would study in Paris, that Marie would send her money that she could spare from her own expenses and her father's, and that as soon as enough money had gathered, the younger sister would study at the Sorbonne. At present she was just at the stage of earning and sending money.

But at last it happened. Paris brought Marie Skłodowska the ability to study as much as she wanted. She earned the best grades of anyone in her classes at the Sorbonne, I think. She also met Pierre Curie, when she was looking for more resources for her research. It was, it seems, the happiest period of her life in unpromising circumstances. Her apartment was dreadful and so unheated that one winter she piled all her clothing and even a chair over herself so that she could sleep; she barely ate anything and became ill; and she wore the same clothing for ages. Apparently Pierre Curie was her soulmate in this aspect too — appalling self-neglect, but also their idealistic and disinterested love of science, seemed to draw them together — and it seems charming, even if this reader at least spent many pages of Madame Curie (the biography first published in 1938 by her daughter Ève) trying to mentally reach through time to tell them to 'Eat something nourishing, for the love of God!'

It's difficult not to become misty-eyed at the portrait of the Curies' romance. It was at first complicated to keep the relationship going as Marie Sklodovska, loyal to Poland and very worried about her father, doubted whether to really marry a French citizen and bind herself to building a life that would keep her away from Warsaw and her family. But Pierre Curie's determination pulled them through, and Marie Curie never seems to have regretted it, although later in life she was — her daughter tells us — a cynic about love.

Pierre Curie liked going on endless walks without any predetermined goal, and Marie Curie enjoyed rambling and loved gardening until she died. So they shared a fondness of nature, too. Their honeymoon sounds beautiful and characteristic: they went on a bicycle tour (I wonder if bicycles were still enormous pennyfarthings in the 1890s?) through the French countryside. It turned out that their families got along well, too. There had been a de facto reunion around the time of the wedding, and Marie had finally been able to see relatives whom she had left behind in Poland, and with whom she'd only been able to talk by letter.

When the married pair returned from their honeymoon, they hoped in vain for a large, weatherproof laboratory space, as well as equipment and any paid staff. Their lab environment was so dusty, etc. that it had been contaminating their materials. It was worse for the Curies because they hated self-advertising and they were bad at actively snaffling paid positions and honours that would finance a better laboratory. Also, intrigues and academic politics ran against them. Prejudices existed against women and foreigners like Marie Curie. The French Academy of Sciences voted against admitting the Curies, and the Sorbonne dragged its heels for years before it finally offered Pierre Curie a professorship and refused even a little longer to pay for a laboratory or laboratory assistants. So, although the École Normale Supérieure was friendlier, offering Pierre a cheap laboratory and offering Marie employment, often the Curies had to finance their own research as they could.

"Rue Lhomond, Paris, 1913"
The street on which the Curies' 'cheap laboratory' stood.
From the Bibliothèque nationale de France
via Wikimedia Commons

Marie Curie chose to write her doctoral thesis about uranium, specifically an effect that Henri Becquerel had observed, i.e. that it can create black prints on photographic paper even though it isn't phosphorescent.

Friday, February 01, 2019

February 2019 in Books: What We'll Be Reading Next

"2019 in books: what you'll be reading this year"
The Guardian,
Saturday, January 5, 2019

John Ruskin, the Victorian art theorist, entered the world on February 8, 1819, but I confess I likely will not be reading any of his essays.
"John Ruskin" (1853/4)
by John Everett Millais
Oil on canvas, in the Ashmolean Museum
via Wikimedia Commons

TO CROSS into the American realm of letters, I've been pleased that James Baldwin has had a posthumous renaissance these past few years, or that perhaps he's never faded from view. A New Yorker originally, a public figure, black, gay — his writings, and his perspective on racism and his debates with people like the conservative William F. Buckley, are much-quoted even now. He lived and wrote at the height of the American civil rights movement, born in Harlem in 1924 and dying at the age of 63 in southern France — the country he had moved to after the Second World War.

He was, perhaps, not a raging optimist. Here's a Friday quotation, taken from Another Country (quoted in Goodreads here):
"People don't have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you're dead, when they've killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn't have any character. They weep big, bitter tears - not for you. For themselves, because they've lost their toy."
Baldwin's book If Beale Street Could Talk has just been adapted into a film, which was released in the US last year by Barry Jenkins. (It appears in the Guardian's article because in Britain the film is coming out later, on February 8.)

"James Baldwin" [Wikipedia]

From the first edition, via Wikimedia Commons

On February 5th, I'm looking forward to Angie Thomas's — she is an American, too, but Mississippian and born in 1988 — book On the Come Up. It's apparently the story of a teenager who wants to become a rapper. Thomas's last book The Hate U Give — the winner of many prizes and the basis of a Hollywood film — has a tense and immediate prose that can appeal to an adult reader just as much as to a younger millennial, which is why I think I might like On the Come Up.

“On the Come Up by Angie Thomas review – another YA hit”
Patrice Lawrence (January 30, 2019) [Guardian, online]

On February 21st, Penguin UK is coming out with a collection of Toni Morrison's essays and speeches, including her eulogy of James Baldwin, and it's called Mouth Full of Blood. (Demosthenes' stones seem more comfortable to me, where filling mouths is concerned.)


RETURNING to children's literature, Penguin UK is publishing an illustrated digest of Charles Darwin's important work On the Origin of Species, on February 19th. Designed in serene, bright saffron-yellow, greens, pale turquoise and senna by Sabina Radeva, the flora and fauna are presented in familiar and soothing forms.

via C.H. Beck

LASTLY, the German publisher C.H. Beck is printing Alexander von Humboldt's accounts of his expedition to Russia in the year 1829 — fifteen years after the Napoleonic Wars.

Von Humboldt's accounts of travelling along the Amazon in the early 19th century were a pleasant read. So I am looking forward to Die Russland-Expedition: Von der Newa bis zum Altai.
[Note: C.H. Beck released it last week, so it does not count as a February book, properly speaking.]


Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Generation After Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde,
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
(Tantor Audio, 2016)

Brittney Cooper,
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower
(MacMillan Audio, 2018)

Rebecca Traister,
Good and Mad: How Women's Anger Is Reshaping America
(Simon + Schuster Audio, 2018)

"Women's March - Washington DC 2017"
by S Pakhrin, Jan. 20, 2017
via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0 Licence)

Last year I joined the Our Shared Shelf reader group on Goodreads. It is an ambassadorial project that Emma Watson, who is famous for her acting work but has also undertaken women's rights work for the United Nations, began to help fulfill her UN role.

For November and December, the reader group discussed three works by American women: Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger by Rebecca Traister, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

New York Review of Books, Digest: Dec./Jan. 2018/9

A few gems appeared in the Letters to the Editor section this month, and I most enjoyed this exploration of the modern terrain of American masculinity in the workplace:

~"What Men Want" - An Exchange
On "Male Trouble"
(the article by Arlie Russell Hochschild, in the NYRB [Oct. 11, 2018]) ~

A GENTLEMAN READER, who must have Arno Breker and Futurist statues of masculine physiques littered around his domicile, has written in to remark:
Hochschild's article [. . .] does not ultimately come to grips with the impact of losing the physical connection to work found, as she describes, in coal mines, assembly lines, oil rigs, and steel mills.
After he has pooh-poohed the idea of funding drug treatments, education bursaries, etc. for industrial workers who are losing their jobs in the United States, the letter-writer declares that these measures would not address the underlying "alienation" and "lack of a viable livelihood."

"Nor," he asserts
does retraining for androgynous jobs, like coding, that men supposedly "badly want" (how does she know?).
Arlie Russell Hochschild asserts, in her reply to the letter, that Appalachian miners and factory workers might miss "high wages and camaraderie" after they lose their jobs. They do not appear to be nostalgic about the repetitive/hazardous labour.

Moreover, unemployment, imprisonment and homelessness do not present an ideal masculine existence either.

So her proposed social welfare programmes (and 'androgynous' work training) might be the lesser evils. (pp. 93-4)


"One Hundred Years of Destruction"
(by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, pp. 74, 80-81])

Wheatcroft's article is very painful to read. After he touches on the unscrupulous projects of the British government using the RAF in early 19th-century colonialist warfare, he analyzes the RAF in World War II.

He argues the weaknesses of preferring the Air Force, instead of land- or sea-based forces, in overall British strategy. (Was it the best use of metal, factory labour, etc.? Was it the most effective?)

He frowns on Sir Winston Churchill and high-ranking officers who ordered the RAF to harass and slaughter about 400,000 people in aerial bombing of cities:
"It was quite a feat to kill 400,000 civilians while barely affecting the German war economy."
The RAF pilots, too, died at an intense rate;
"Out of almost 125,000 who flew on active service, an awe-inspiring 55,573 were killed."
The peril of this article is, I think, that a veteran, or the descendants of a veteran, might read this and feel personally attacked. The author does try to qualify his assertions, and perhaps indirectly acknowledges that a good conscience was one of the casualties of war for many people (who are open to crises of conscience).


[Patricia Storace's article, "Sing, Goddess" about Pat Barker's novel The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller's Circe, both set in Homeric Greece, and about the brutal woman's lot in an Archaic, men-dominated world (e.g. during war-time), was similarly painful. (pp. 65-66, 68]


"Founding Frenemies" by T.H. Breen winds up in a near-"twist ending." The article at first appears to be about U.S. President John Adams's abrasive demeanour and his unexpected friendship with Thomas Jefferson. Then, at the end, it becomes apparent that the pleasantly idle nostalgia-trip to late 18th-century America is no such thing, after all... (pp. 68, 70-71)


[All articles, including the quotations above, are from the New York Review of Books, Vol. LXV, No. 20, December 20, 2018 - January 16, 2019]

Sunday, January 13, 2019

In Memory: John Burningham

I grew up with the pictures of the British children's book writer and illustrator John Burningham, who has died on January 4th this year. So I wanted to post a brief tribute, albeit a lazy one that links to articles by those who sometimes did know him personally:

"Remembering John Burningham"
Penguin UK, January 9, 2019
(Penguin Random House were his publishers.)
With much sadness, the family of John Burningham, author and illustrator of countless much-loved children’s books including Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Avocado Baby and Borka, confirm that he passed away on Friday 4 January, aged 82.
The article quotes a long-ago tribute from Maurice Sendak, which the American illustrator had written for a book published in 2009 when both men were still alive:
"Your work, John, is stunning, luscious, sexy, hilarious and mysterious and frequently just plain nuts."

John Burningham: Behind the Scenes
Jonathan Cape, 2009
via Goodreads
"John Burningham, children's author and illustrator, dies aged 82"
Alison Flood,, January 7, 2019

"Helen Oxenbury and John Burningham win top books honour"
Interview by Alison Flood,, February 8, 2018

In a recent interview for the Guardian, together with his wife Helen Oxenbury, the author had said,
Children are not less intelligent, they're just less experienced, and there is this rather silly attitude that can be adopted, that 'Oh it's for children, it's got to be pink coloured cakes or lots of pattern everywhere, that's what they'll like', and they’re bored.
He and Helen Oxenbury had agreed that old age should not be an impediment to continuing their work:
"I'm very fortunate that I've got good eyesight and I haven't got a trembly hand, so I shall get on with it" [...]
Burningham insisted. Also,
[T]he pair said that winning a lifetime achievement award did not mean they would be hanging up their paintbrushes. “I am horrible, aren’t I, John, if I’m not working?” said Oxenbury. “Dreadful,” said Burningham. “So I have to carry on,” said Oxenbury.


"Obituary: John Burningham"
By Shannon Maughan, Publishers Weekly, January 10, 2019