King’s Where Do We Go From Here

Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community
Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. King’s last book and as relevant now as the day he wrote it. It’s easy to forget how radical King was, especially in his final years. Calling not only for Black liberation, but for an end to the Vietnam war, and demanding economic equality. In turning him into a saint, we have left out the parts of him that don’t fit the narrative we want to place on him. We downplay the incredible, almost unimaginable, courage it took to commit to nonviolence when white supremacists are actively trying to kill you. And we forget his demands for truly just society, one far different from the one we have today. Instead we act as if his dream was realized and the work is done.

It is, to state the obvious, not.

There’s a lot going on in this book. King is laying out a broad agenda for social change, but the thing that stuck with me the most in the early section, where he discusses his difference with Kwame Ture (at the time, Stokely Carmichael). King and Ture were on opposite sides of black power. The differences were real, and serious, but in discussing their disagreement King takes the time to honor Ture’s position, explaining how Ture arrived where he did, how much white violence played a part in that journey, and argues against Ture from a place of love. It’s remarkable and so different from much of our modern discourse. I hope we can get back there.

Recommended.

Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door

The Spook Who Sat By The Door
Sam Greenlee

I think I first heard about The Spook Who Sat By The Door maybe twenty years ago, but this was the year I finally read this incredible book. The storyline is well known to the reader of leftist literature – Dan Freeman, a black man, joins the CIA in order to secretly learn the lessons of counter insurgency so as to build a guerilla army to fight for Black liberation. It’s an incredible, radical book and you can see why it was rejected by mainstream publishers. It is part thriller, part radical political manifesto. The writing is, I think its fair to say, work a day, but who cares.  The plot is propulsive and Freeman is a multileveled, complex “hero”. I can’t think of another work of fiction like it.

Recommended.

Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room
James Baldwin

When I was in my twenties, this was a favorite book of a number of friends. I don’t know why I never read it. This is Baldwin at the height of his powers writing with a kind of restraint that makes the themes of the novel even more explosive. I’m not literary critic, I don’t know why Baldwin set this novel of gay love in Paris. I don’t know why everyone is white. I sympathize with the critique that too much of queer literature is centered in tragedy, but that is the story Baldwin wanted to tell and what a story it is.

This book transported me. It is wonderful.

Recommended.

Review: Mantel’s Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

The plan was to wait until all three books came out and then read them one right after the other. As other reviews this year will make clear, that didn’t happen. One down, two to go.

This, Mantel’s first book on Cromwell is, you are not surprised to hear, brilliant. The writing is so clear you can see through it to Henry’s court. I woke up early in the morning to read this over coffee while the wife and kids slept.

Not a critique but more of a warning. Mantel assumes a lot of the reader. The book has a very helpful dramatis persona, I needed more background on the players to really understand what was going on. Wikipedia was my friend here. All in all an absolute cracker of a read. Cromwell remains in many ways mysterious through the book, his motives a bit obscure, yet as Mantel I am sure intended, I ended up rooting for him.

Recommended.  

Review: Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Huruki Murakami

Why did it take me so long to read this delightful little book? Perhaps because while I admire Murakami’s fiction, I don’t really like it. This book has a certain oddness to it, it is so straight forward, filled with such short, careful, deliberative, sentences that it puts one into almost a dream state. It’s wonderful and, perhaps better than any other book I’ve read represents the solace that is to be found in a regular running practice.

Murakami reflects on his entry into running, his racing successes, and failures, and his drive to continue to try to do just a little bit better (keeping in mind that “better” changes as we age).  

I started this about two months into the pandemic, when I was running everyday, and Murakami’s ups and downs, injuries and triumphs, and consistent, consistent, mileage resonated with the daily run existence I was living. Somehow, I need to get back there.  

Recommended

Review: Barry’s The Great Influenza

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History

John Barry

Started this book right in the heart of it. Mid-April, New York City. Only leaving the apartment late at night to run around an empty Prospect Park.

This is an incredible work, both a detail history of the greatest modern pandemic before covid and a book about the development of modern medicine in America.

I, like most people, in early 2020 knew next to nothing about the 1918 pandemic. I didn’t know that it started (most likely) in America, and not Spain. I didn’t know that they didn’t even know it was the flu for an incredibly long time. I didn’t know that (like today) the response was badly bungled by the federal government, and I didn’t know (like today) that the death toll was disproportionately among the poor.  Reading it was in some ways like reading our own future, though I hope our outcome is better. They never really got control of the flu then, it kind of just petered out on it’s own after leaving millions dead.

Perhaps the thing about this book and the 1918 pandemic that struck me hardest was the 1918 produced no great works of art. No profound novels, no mournful operas, no harrowing paintings. In our cultural landscape, it was all but forgotten, living on only in punk rock record covers of folks in masks. I wonder, will our pandemic turn out the same?

Highly recommended.  

Review: Nutt’s Drink

Drink? The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health 
David Nutt

Checked this out after it received glowing praise from Tyler Cowen and it was well worth it. Drink is an investigation into our relationship with alcohol and it’s historical importance, especially focused on England. But the main thrust of the book is a detailed investigation into what it does to our body and mind.

Spoiler alert – it’s not good.

Nutt isn’t a teetotaler, but I’ll be honest that this book made me rethink my own beer after work routine. This is probably the most information health book I have read in years and I’ve read my fair share.

Recommended.  

Review: Homie by Danez Smith

Home: Poems

Danez Smith

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.

Recommended.

hobbs_danez-smith

Danez Smith. (Photograph by David Hong)

Koestler’s Arrival and Departure


Arrival and Departure
Arthur Koestler

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.

Recommended.

Arthur Koestler

Review: Manchette’s Ivory Pearl

Ivory Pearl

Jean-Patrick Manchette

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.

Recommended

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Jean-Patrick Manchette