The Atheist in the Attic
I am a huge fan of the work of Samuel Delany and I’m convinced that a hundred years from now, he’ll be one of the most studied writers of our time. This is a minor work made of two pieces, a short novella that imagines the conversations between two great rationalists at the dawn of the enlightenment, the polymath scientific genius, Gottfried Leibniz and the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The book imagines the conversations that occurred between these two luminaries from very different worlds and is, in the intellectual tradition of some of Delany’s other non-science fiction works.
Its not his best work, perhaps because it seems unpolished, more a thought experiment than a fully formed work, but the for the fan like myself it illuminates an aspect of Delany too often overlooked – the historian of philosophy and western thought.
This little book is rounded out by an interview Delany did about his recent work, including the monumental Through the Valley of the Nest of the Spiders. As always, Delany is a careful, elucidating interview subject and for the fan, this book is worth picking up just for this.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
A slim, early volume by one of my favorite working poets. You can see the visceral power and honesty here, (some of the poems here are repeated in the more comprehensive Don’t Call Us Dead) but perhaps it isn’t as fully developed as I think it is in his later works.
There’s many wonders to poetry, some of which are just opening up to me in middle age, but one is, frankly, the brevity. It allows you to quickly dive deep into a writer, and with someone like Smith, who’s published relatively little, almost immediately read his collected works and see his development as a writer.
I was blown away by “Don’t Call Us Dead” and you can see the roots of that brilliance in Black Movie. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins
Another gut punch of a book of poetry by a black man. Viscerally moving sonnets about race, love and America. Most pointedly what its like to reflect backwards, and think ahead, in Trump’s America.
For many years, I didn’t read much poetry, but lately, I’m drawn to it. There’s only so many tweets you can read, so many Washington tell alls you can consume, before it all feels the same and you need someone brilliant, like Terrance Hayes, to capture the moment in a perfect turn of phrase, the reflect back the world to you in a sonnet that leaves you staring at the page long after you’re done reading.
Perhaps now, more than ever, we need poetry and poets to give voice to what its like to live today.
A good crime novel is often as much about place as it is about characters and plot. Raymond Chandler is telling us not just about some caper gone wrong, he’s telling us about Los Angeles. Same with Richard Stark and New York City and, in the present case, Attica Locke and East Texas.
Clearly, Locke knows this area well. The story of a two murders, likely racially motivated, in a small town, and the investigation that follows feels deeply rooted in the details of food, music, and geography that give this book its weight. The black Texas ranger, the black small business owner, the white landowner and cops live in a real place, even if the town in this book is actually fictional.
In the hands of a lesser talent this book could have been clichéd or doctrinaire, but Locke is a smart, nuanced, writer (incredibly, this is her first novel) and she tells this story of racism, violence, and betrayal incredibly well. It’s a cliché, but I couldn’t put it down.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
I read and loved Salvage the Bones, Ward’s first novel about a poor black and rural family preparing for hurricane Katrina. And I read, and cried, over her memoir Men We Reaped. But this, her latest about mothers and her children, about prison, about drugs, about race and violence and history and the ghosts that haunt us (and keep us company) is by far her most powerful work.
The plot focuses on JoJo, a thirteen year old boy by turns taken care of, and taking care of his drug addicted parents, his baby sister, and his maternal grandparents, while wrestling (literally and figuratively) with the ghosts of his family, and America’s history.
I’m generally not one for magical realism, but Ward does the supernatural elements here with such grace, and such beautiful language, that they seem essential. Of course there are ghosts here, haunting Parchment Farm. How else could it be.
I read this book some time ago now, but I still remember the moment, on a packed train, when I finished it, almost crying, looked up at the dirty roof of the subway car and whispered to myself “holy shit”.
Its that good.
Zami: A New Spelling of the Name
The autobiography of one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. The story of a first-generation immigrant, a visually impaired girl, who dreamt of things far beyond what her mother could imagine. The story of a woman who read, and wrote, and worked the factory floor. Who discovered her sexuality in a time where that had to be done in secret for fear of physical violence.
A book written with an authentic, though at times almost detached, voice. A story of coming to terms with who you are as a writer, as a lesbian, as a feminist, in a New York City that was changing rapidly, but still very unwelcoming.
A window into a world I would never otherwise see.
A must read.
This book came out more than ten years ago, when the modern-day prison abolitionist movement was surging on the left, powered by groups like Critical Resistance and intellectuals like Davis. I was part of that world and I’m a little embarrassed it took me this long to read this.
This is make, no mistake, a polemic. But it is also well done arguing the case that we need not just prison reform, but prison abolition. That the institution cannot be reformed, but instead must be abandoned. It’s a radical, idea, of course. But one worth taking seriously.
There’s nothing that says we must imprison those who break societies laws. Other forms of restorative justice and mediation should also be considered. Davis makes the cases for these alternatives to incarceration eloquently and succinctly in this slim volume and while I don’t also agree with her, I always find her compelling. Too often today we tune out the voices that don’t align exactly with our own opinions. That’s a mistake. Take the concept Davis is arguing (that prisons are barbaric and should be replaced) seriously. Listen to her arguments, look at her sources, and decide what is valid and what isn’t. You’ll be a better citizen for it.
Worth a read for those interested in criminal justice and a just society, which, really should be all of us.