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.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir
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.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
A gut punch, a wake up call, a deeply effecting book about race, sexual assault, food, immigration, class, writing, love and America. Really a must read.
I’m someone who cares deeply about health and fitness. I struggle to make the right food choices, and hit the gym, but my personal issues are put into stark relief as the cloying bullshit problems of a privileged white dude when held against Gays heartrending and inspiring story.
This is a story of growing up the child of immigrants, of suffering horrible sexual assault, and struggling with that, and more. Its about coping with lives horrors with food, both for comfort and protection.
It’s also the story of a powerful writer finding her voice through years of work and struggle and missteps and luck.
It is near perfectly written in Gay’s direct to the jugular style.
I couldn’t put it down.
You might not think of yourself as the kind of person who would read a memoir that is, at least ostensibly, about weight problems, but really it is about so much more. And you are the kind of person who reads important, powerful, books and you should read this one.
Salvage the Bones
Stunning prose. A look into a world (rural, black, deep south) that is not often depicted in literature. Really, really good.
Salvage the Bones tells the story of a young girl and her family and community as they prepare for, and endure, Hurricane Katrina. The sense of dread that permeates the first part of the book sets in even deeper when you realize (a) that they have no idea how bad things will get and (b) that other calamities and challenges unrelated to the storm are also coming down on this struggling family.
Ward writes with a clarity that is awe inspiring. She says Faulkerner was an inspiration, and you tell. The writing is crystal clear, yet beautiful. Slow burning, yet, I couldn’t put it down. This was the first book by Ward that I read, but within months, I’d go on to read two more.
If you want to see the future of the American novel depicting a part of the world rarely shown, read this.
The Obelisk Gate
This is the follow up to Jemisin’s incredible, mind blowing, the Fifth Season and its good. Very good, even. Jemisin’s prose is top rate, and the story churns forward revealing more about our characters and the world they inhabit, while still keeping up the mystery and allure that made Fifth Season so wonderfully strange.
But its hard to follow up on a classic. I don’t know anything about how Jemisin wrote these books, but the sense I get is Fifth Season was painfully crafted, perhaps over years, every sentence worked to death, then every paragraph, then every chapter, then back again. The Obelisk Gate doesn’t have the same feeling. It’s a damn good book, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t have the clock work precision of Fifth Season.
Still and all, if excellent SF/Fantasy is your thing, odds are you’ve already read this. If gorgeously written novels struggling with identity, gender, race, and the nature of relationships interests you, you should get over your genre prejudices and check this one out.
Why Homer Matters: A History
This one hit all my sweet spots. A book about Homer that is part travelogue / memoir, part meditation on deep engagement with a text, and part ancient history primer. A must read for the ancient history enthusiast.
Nicolson’s easy erudition and his deep emotional connection to the works of the great bard lead to a book that is really very special. Much of the historical and linguistic knowledge here is well known, but Nicolson’s application of it, to his travels, and to his life, resonated with me and helped deepen my own understanding of why Homer remains so important. Nicolson travels to the main sights of the texts, and engages with them as he sorts through his own complex and fraught life. Through these experiences, he brings us a little closer, I think, to answering why these stories of marauding and duplicitous Greeks, plagued by desires and loves which lead some to ruin, and some home again, still resonate.
If you haven’t read Homer, I suggest you do (probably the Fagel’s translation), and I suggest you pair it with this book.
*But if you haven’t this is as good a place as any to start.