I’m as surprised as anyone to say that I have a couple of favorite contemporary poets.
For most of my life I didn’t pay much attention to this world, but now I follow the work of a couple of poets pretty carefully including Morgan Parker, Ilya Kaminsky and the brilliant Danez Smith. This new book from Smith is perhaps even better then Don’t Call Us Dead. I found myself saying “wow” out loud at the end of one of the poems here. Gorgeous language, gut-wrenching honesty and style approachable to a non-expert like me. Smith moves from the playful to the heartbreaking, sometimes in a single poem, like this one.
Opening myself up to poetry and getting invested in the careers of a small group of young poets has been a great experience – exposing to ideas and lives often far from my own and I look forward to their books now like I used to look forward to new album releases. Even if contemporary poetry isn’t really your thing, Smith’s is a voice worth hearing.
Danez Smith. (Photograph by David Hong)
Arrival and Departure
A taught little novel about intrigue and politics in a town of transients and refugees. Our protagonist is a leftist hero, who has left the growing dictatorship in his country to either return to fight on the side of justice or flee to an apolitical life across the sea. He meets first a gorgeous woman who takes his heart, then dives into deep analysis with a woman who wants to know what makes him tick, what makes a good boy from a good family become a revolutionary; and why he’s so damaged now. And eventually, he ends up debating with a fascist with whom he shares a social economic class, but nothing more.
I wasn’t sure when I was reading this whether I liked it or not. Some of it is a bit post-war European for me, I thought. But much of the book — the characters, the setting, and the mood, especially, has stayed with me. And that says a lot.
The master of the noir novels final, unfinished, work Ivory Pearl was supposed to be the start a new, expansive series using the espionage novel as a means to talk about the revolutions and uprisings of the post WWII years. Manchette died before he could finish it, but what he left us with is a very different novel than his earlier works. Yes we have the incredible prose — surgical in its clarity and the propulsive plot, but here the characters are more fleshed out, with more of an inner life, and Ivory Pearl, the protagonist feels like a real hero. Unlike the protagonists in his others novels (killers, generally, sometimes mentally ill) Pearl is… dare I say it? Likeable?
I was so into this novel it was a bit of a gut punch when I got close to one of the main confrontations just as it ended and the notes explaining where the editors thought Manchette would take the plot began.
As an unfinished work, this isn’t as perfect as Manchette’s other novels, but still well worth the time of any fan of the crime genre.
The Bluest Eye
I am embarrassed to admit that until this year, the only Toni Morrison book I have read was Beloved. I’m determined to change that. And being me, I started at the beginning with Bluest Eye.
Good lord it is stunning. A clear eyed, visceral, look into a black community in Ohio in the forties, focusing around the story of a traumatized little girl. This is the story of Pecola and all that happens to her, but it is also the story of those around her, told through their voices and gives you a real sense of the struggles and occasional joys of surviving in a poverty stricken African American community.
Morrison didn’t produce all that many novels in her career and you can see why when you read this slim work – it is a perfect jewel box of a novel with care taken in the choice of every word. Reading something this beautiful and clear feels like a gift, and I’m so excited to read the rest of her works.
The Mad and the Bad
A woman with mental problems is sprung from a hospital to watch a child heir. A tortured assassin with a bad ulcer is hire to make a murder like look a kidnapping. Nobody gets what they’re expecting.
Welcome to another crime novel by the mad genius Jean-Patrick Manchette where the writing is clean and spare and the plot twists come at you fast. Most of Manchette’s novels are full of unlikable people, and this one is no different, though, perhaps there is a hero within this one, and perhaps she’s a disturbed young woman who just wants to do what’s right.
All Manchette’s novels are brilliant, but this one is among the best.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
A clever and engrossing account of the story of Adam and Eve from its origins in early Judaism (and perhaps other long gone near east traditions) through its codification in the Torah, to its centrality in the thinking of Augustine and John Milton through to the modern developments of evolution and prehistoric paleontology.
This was a fun read with scores of digressions into Babylonian mythology, early church theocratic disputes, the English civil war and more. Greenblatt does a great job of popularizing some heady material while not dumbing it down too far. Really fascinating and fun from page one to the finish.
Mishneh Torah – Talmud Torah
In March, my friend Noah asked me if I’d like to learn some Torah with him. Of course I said yet. By Torah here Noah meant the expansive sense of the word, covering texts of religious importance to Jews. After some back and forth, we settled on learning Maimonides (aka the Rambam) laws for the Study of Torah or Hilchot Talmud Torah from the Rambam’s massive Mishneh Torah. We did this in the tradition way of Chavrusa, working together line by line, to analyze the Rambam’s distillation of the laws governing the study of Torah in great, great detail. Noah read the text in Hebrew, I in English and we discussed and debated both the large themes the Rambam was presenting and the smallest apparent logical inconsistency in the text. We did this, just about every shabbat morning, for the last nine months.
Finally, just recently, we finished. It was one of the most exciting intellectual experiences I’ve had in years. Noah is deeply knowledgeable about the Rambam. Me, not so much. Noah brought a lifetime of deep Torah study and a brilliant intellect. I think I brought some fresh perspectives and a willingness to ask stupid questions to the conversation.
Seeing very up close the care with which the Rambam codified these rules for study was a revelation and while I still don’t always agree with the great man, I’m more impressed than ever with the clarity and care that went into creating this massive, yet minutely constructed work.
As for the form of reading this – hyper closely, debating every line, while our children played in the background — it was a joy. There were many mornings when I didn’t want to get up and get over to Noah’s place, but after every session, I felt invigorated. Its an incredible way to start the day.
Recommended (the text for Jews and others interested in a detailed articulation of the rules governing Torah study) and the practice of Chavrusa for everyone.
Maimonides (aka the Rambam)
I think this is generally thought of as Manchette’s most fully realized work and the culmination of his deeply nihilistic noir novels. The Fatale is a young woman who, we soon discovers, kills lecherous men for revenge, and money. She is literally a serial killer, yet still we cheer for her, especially as she seems so close to ruining the lives of scores of awful bourgeoisie dilettantes in a small French town. Except, then, as always happens in a Manchette novel, things get even more chaotic and violent.
Like every Manchette novel this is a brilliant piece of economic writing, propulsive plot, and compelling (if hardly likeable) characters. That he does so much with so few words can feel like magic.
Three To Kill
You’re coming home late at night, you try to do the right thing, but you end up getting caught up in something you don’t even understand and then people start trying to kill you. That’s the plot of 3 to Kill, and of many other crime novels and thrillers, but Manchette, in his very Manchette way takes it in another direction where the chase and the near death provide the bourgeois businessman protagonist something he needs, some sense that life is real?
What if armed men trying to kill you is a gift?
Like all Manchette’s novels this one moves at a rapid pace, with action on top of action and little to no time for reflection. It’s a crackerjack of a novel and further testament to why Manchette is among the greatest crime writers to ever live.
The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band That Burned a Million Pounds
Man this is a weird one.
Ostensibly this is a book about a dance band that was also a sort of chaos art project that involved outlandish stunt after outlandish stunt culminating the burning of a million British pounds on a desolate island. An action that was widely panned and that the band itself could never successfully explain.
Its also a book about weird undercurrents of magic and conspiracy theories that have simmered in certain corners of British pop culture for decades, from the comics of Alan Moore to the Dr. Who series. But that’s not all, it’s also a book about the surprisingly far reaching effect of a discordianism – a religion of sorts made up as a kind of joke by a bunch of American weirdos and made famous in the science fiction novels of Robert Anton Wilson.
It’s a wild ride, going from the JFK assassination to the business of dance music production, from chaos magic to children’s television shows and I loved it. As someone who has followed this weird world for a long time, I thought I knew the story of the KLF, but nope, I didn’t know the half of it. Unlike most writers in this area, Higgs is a real journalist who did the real footwork necessary to tell this story and boy is it compelling.
If the weird is your thing, then this book is definitely for you.