This book has been making the rounds among many of my friends and family and people’s reactions are so stark, and so diametrically opposed. There are those who love this book, who relate to its extreme bookishness, to the authors attempts to come to grips with her life through a deep reading of, centrally, the Talmud, but also through her reading of other, non-religious texts.
Then there are others who see the book as emotionally distant, the work of a someone unable, or unwilling, to address her emotional life head on, and who rather mediates all her relationships through text.
I fall into the first camp.
If all the Seas Were Ink is a memoir of the years Ilana Kurshan spent as part of Daf Yomi, the “largest book club in the world’ in which thousand of (mostly) Jews read single page of the Talmud, every day, for a little more than seven years. Kurshan’s reading of the Talmud is the through line in the book, while around it she struggles with a divorce, dating, meeting a new man, and having children. She contemplates love, Judaism and motherhood all the through the prism of Torah and literature.
To some people (i.e. ME) this is irresistible. To others, it’s all perhaps a bit much. You probably won’t know what camp you fall into until you read it yourself.
The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World
We all know the world is warming, we all know this will change the way we live. Goodell’s book doesn’t break any ground there, but what is does do is give us a very terrifying, very sobering, look at what exactly our hotter, wetter, future will look like. He does this by visiting cities across the globe who are likely to be drastically affected (or perhaps even destroyed) by a warming planet and rising oceans.
Goodell is a journalist, and he wisely focuses here on the human side of this story, the people who will be hurt, the people who profited, the people who will be hurt, and the people trying to do something about it. As always, is seems, the poorest places will be hit the hardest with multiple countries in South Asia facing dire consequences. But America will not be immune. Miami is in serious trouble; in New York it isn’t looking much better.
All in all its a sobering, dark read. But there is some room for hope, New York, for one, is at least taking the crisis seriously, and while it still isn’t clear if enough is being done, or even what the right thing is, the sooner more people face the problem the better are our chances to surviving.
* If you don’t know that, you should stop reading this little review and go open a newspaper.
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.
The Invisibility Cloak
Short novel set in contemporary China, ostensibly about love and high-end audio equipment. Really about a country grappling with mass hyper-urbanization, corruption, and huge wealth disparities. It plays out at first as a sort of surreal comedy, but quickly (the whole book is less than 200 pages) into a dark spiral of betrayal and loss.
I’m not much for the sardonic novel, but this one quickly takes its tongue out of its cheek and plunges into the tragically comedic, and then just the tragic. I know little about modern China, and can’t really say whether this is an accurate portrayal of the country or not, but I can say its captivating, and creates a surreal, yet resonate sense of place. Glad I took the risk.
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.
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.
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.