Lorde’s Coal

Coal
Audre Lorde

Audre Lord would go on to be one of the cornerstones of the contemporary poetry, a woman referenced by anyone who cares about the art form. An activist who taught a generation that “”Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

But when she wrote Coal, she wasn’t famous yet. She was already a powerful writer, shaping language to address the political through the lens of the human, writing about social justice, yes, but also love. This is a slim volume by a relatively young woman finding her voice and better scholars than I might say the work is not yet mature, but I found it deeply compelling, human, and real. A strong introduction to a powerful voice.

Recommended.

Hanh’s the Miracle of Mindfulness

The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
Thich Nhat Hanh

A beautiful and practical book on starting and sustaining a meditation practice by Thich Nhat Hanh. If you’re reading this review you probably know Hanh is one of the most important Buddhist practitioners alive today. His writings, courses, and political activism are legion, and the community that surrounds him broad and incredibly active. I’ve been an admirer from afar from many years (indeed, I have done legal work for his organization) but I haven’t really delved into his work until now.

This is a great place to start, accessible, clear, and gorgeous in its simplicity, it’s a perfect introduction to Hanh. Generally, I find myself drawn to the more scientific end of writings on mindfulness, but the sincerity and pureness of intention here drew me in and captivated me. I read the whole thing in two days.

If you’re looking to dip you toes into a mindfulness practice, you could do worse than starting here.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete

Are Prisons Obsolete?
Angela Davis

 

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.

Recommended.

Chödrön’s Start Where You Are


Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

Pema Chodron
An accessible and clear introduction to foundational principles of Buddhism told through a series of Tibetan Buddhist maxims. Chödrön writes with compassion and clarity, and the structure of the book is elegant in its simplicity, taking one maxim at a time and reflecting on it.

I should have nothing but praise for this, especially as its considered one of the great introductory books out there. But it didn’t resonate with me. I prefer my Buddhism served up with the irony and anxiety of a Dan Harris, or the science of a Robert Wright. But that’s just me. If Tibetan Buddhism interests you, especially its aspects which focus on love and compassion, then this is a fine introduction. Perhaps I’ll return to it if someday meditation turns me into slightly less of an asshole.

Ward’s Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped: A Memoir 
Jesmyn Ward

There may be other American writers working today who are as gifted as Ward, but I have a hard time believing there are any more gifted. From fiction to memoir, Ward consistently leaves me at the edge of tears at the raw emotion of what she is sharing, and the technical brilliance with which she does it.
This is a memoir. It is the story memorializing the dead men from her hometown in rural Louisiana. All the men here were young, all died unnatural deaths, and all were black. None of that should surprise you, young black men in our country die at shameful rates. How this comes about is what Ward is struggling to explore.

The story focuses on the untimely death of Ward’s brother, but it comes to his death last, as a sort of culmination of a series of events, all related in one way of another, that hit Ward’s community over the span of a few short years. The book is pitch perfect in balancing reportage with anguish, making us feel the loses Ward suffered, personally, with every death, while also not losing sight of the larger story here – that our society sends young black men to the grave with alarming regularity.

All of Ward’s books are worth reading. She is truly among the best living American authors, but this one feels the most necessary, the most urgent, of what she has done so far. If you’re going to start anywhere with Ward’s work, I suggest you start here. But keep going, she has much to share.

Recommended.

Review: Hoffman’s Greeting from Utopia Park

Greetings from Utopia Park
Claire Hoffman

Mindfulness and meditation are having a moment. All over the business world people are extolling the virtues of a daily practice for productivity and mental health. This mainstreaming of meditation is being led by apps like Headspace (which I use) and the leaders of the mindfulness movement like Joseph Goldstein. But a rising tide lifts all ships and the perennially popular and controversial Transcendental Meditation (TM) is also having a moment.

This book, a memoir of growing up in the hot bed of hardcore TM practitioners in Fairfield, Iowa, gives some valuable insights into the TM movement, especially in its early years. These days, TM prefers to be associated with Hollywood celebrities and the health benefits which have been correlated with the practice of the discipline, but we should forget that for a while there TM and the Maharishi were more closely associated with attempts at “yogic flying” and meditating for world peace.

This book is a story of those years.  About what it means to grow up deep within the TM movement, with a single mom who spent hours a day in meditation, to be broke when those around you were wealthy, to want the secular pleasures of average teenager when your mother would rather you sat on a cushion. It’s a book critical of TM’s excesses, for sure, but not entirely dismissive of them. Indeed by the end of the book, we’re filled with doubts about the leadership of the TM movement, but also following the author as she attempts to learn yogic flying.

It’s a New Religious Movement memoir, and I’m a sucker for those, even when they’re poorly done. But this one is thoughtful, it is well written, and if you have an interest in TM, or what its like to grow up outside the mainstream, its worth the time.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Ide I.Q.

I.Q.

Joe Ide

Cat nip for the crime novel fan. Fast paced P.I. story set in Los Angeles with a compelling protagonist, I.Q. A genius, a high school dropout, black, socially insecure and from Long Beach. He’s an unusual hero in a genre more often populated by misanthropic ex-cop white dudes.  You won’t be surprised to learn its already optioned for a movie.

The plot, focused on the possible attempts to murder a rap star moves, and resolves in a way that is, while a bit over the top, not as absurd as many crime novel crescendos.

But rarely is it the plot that makes a crime novel fun. More often, it’s the detective, or the killer. And here, both are fun. Our detective is wonderfully fascinating. His back story tragic, his intelligence, inspiring, his personality quirks, related-able.  The killer is pleasantly psychopathic and, as is common in these books, a bit overdrawn. But this is a crime novel, and a thriller, its meant to be enjoyed at a breakneck pace for the clever asides, the telling anecdotes, the compelling action.  I enjoyed the hell out of it. If well written crime novels are your thing, you will too.

Recommended for the enthusiast.