Sunday, July 26, 2015

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I've read more this summer than I ever have, I think. Some of this is a function of the necessity of reading, because I'm teaching the books for the first time (Paper Towns, The Other Wes Moore), for others, it was the necessity to read it because the writers had changed my life in previous works and I wanted to be part of the current cultural conversation regarding them (Go Set a Watchman, Between the World and Me). With Everything I Never Told You, though, it was a different necessity that propelled me through the book in a very short time: the fact that this was the best novel I've read in ages, incredibly poignant with wounded characters for whom I just ached.

The novel begins with the sentences, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet," and, not knowing anything about the book before I picked it up and started reading it, thought it would be a flashy and well-done murder mystery, much like Gone Girl. But this wasn't the case. There is mystery throughout the novel, but only a little bit of the whodunit variety; most of the mystery involves the secrets that people keep from each other, especially family secrets. This is a family that is well-meaning and loves each other, but hurts each other repeatedly and profoundly, and every relationship is shrouded in reticence.

The family is also mixed race, with an Asian-American father, a white mother, and three mixed-race kids, and it takes place in a small college town in Ohio in the mid- to late-1970s. This creates several other conflicts and themes of the novel, about racial isolation and the struggle for acceptance because of race and gender. The giving of the book How to Win Friends and Influence People as a gift serves as an important symbol; so does an old Betty Crocker cookbook that had me looking up if she was a real person (answer: she wasn't; an actress played her).

The result, told mostly in flashback, is profoundly moving portrait of a family in grief, both before and after, as each character's thread is unveiled in moving and surprising ways. The omniscient narration weaves seamlessly from character to character, and, by the end, we have been frustrated, and stirred by each member of this family, and we feel for them all.

And it's Ng's language -- pristine, lyrical, affecting -- that kept me entranced, that put tears in my eyes and chokes into my throat as I read it for hour chunks on the elliptical machine at the gym. I typed out a couple of the many passages that I bookmarked to try and give you a picture; in the first, the omniscient narration is focused on James, the father; in the second, it is on Lydia, the oldest daughter of the family.

"The first afternoon they'd spent together, in his tiny whitewashed studio apartment, he marveled at how her body fit so perfectly against his: her nose nestled exactly into the hollow between his collarbones; her cheek curved to match the side of his neck. As if they were two halves of a mold. He had studied her with the air of a sculptor, tracing the contours of her hips and calves, his fingertips grazing her skin. When they made love, her hair came alive. It darkened from golden-wheat to amber. It kinked and curled like a fiddlehead fern. It amazed him that he could have such an effect on anyone. As she dozed in his arms, her hair slowly relaxed, and when she woke, it had stretched back to its usual waves. Then her easy laugh sparkled in that white, bare room; as she chattered, breathless, her hands fluttered until he caught them in his and they lay warm and still, like resting birds, and then she pulled him to her again. It was as if America herself was taking him in."

"Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn't look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn't think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Everytime you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express--a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers--Chinese--Japanese--look at these--and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you'd been cut out and pasted in."

This is an very good novel, one of the best I've read in years, reminding me in goods ways of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season in its concentration on the internal dynamics and private thoughts of all members of a family. Everything I Never Told You is much sadder than that novel, though, just terrifically gut-wrenching at times, but I feel really lucky to have spent 300 pages with Ng and this family.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Movie/TV Diary: Summer 2015

Dexter: If you had asked me five or six years ago, I would have told you that Dexter was one of the greatest TV series of all time. Seasons 1-4 were superb, hitting a climax of creativity in Seasons 3 and 4, buoyed by guest stars Jimmy Smits and John Lithgow. The show was unique, funny, and often moving, and its star Michael C. Hall as the blood analyst for Miami metro, as well as a serial killer with a "code" only to murder other killers who the law can't reach, was one of the best actors on television. I loved the rest of the underrated (never nominated for Emmies) cast, too: Jennifer Carpenter, as Debra, had to be one of the most interesting female police officers ever portrayed on television, and Carpenter's performance, with all its cursing and tics, really stood out. The diverse rest of the cast, especially Lauren Velez as Captain LaGuerta and David Zayas as Detective Bautista, were also stellar; has a television show ever made such strong use of a Latino cast? So, as aforementioned, the first four seasons are superb, but, with the death of Rita and the emergence of Harrison as an important figure in Dexter's life, the show's credibility strained more than usual. Season 5, with Julia Stiles, was pretty good still, but Season 6 rested on the unable shoulders of Colin Hanks, and that season was pretty bad. As the last two seasons brought the series to a close, and (spoiler) Deb discovers Dexter's secret, I felt like both she and Dexter began acting pretty stupidly, against character, and, while I couldn't stop watching because I cared about the characters too much, I was saddened by the last moments of the series; I think a more intriguing ending to the series may have been Deb shooting Dexter instead of Laguerta at the end of Season 7. Still, the ending, as it was, leaves open the possibility of a movie at some point, which would be pretty cool.

So, as it is, I think Dexter probably will remain in my Top-15 or -20 series of all time, but not in the Top-5. Those first four seasons were enough, and the lows of Seasons 6-8 can't diminish that too much. Also, by the way: best opening credits of a TV show, ever?

Nightcrawler: Woah this movie is awesome, nearly flawless, certainly one of the best of 2014. It's a thriller with really great acting (a creepy thin Jake Gyllenhall has never been better) and horrifically satirizes modern culture's lust for blood in its news. It's dark -- both literally and figuratively -- but bustles with energy and noir-ish moodiness. First-time director (at age 56) Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the script and is the husband of co-star Rene Russo, is one to watch. Available on Netflix.

Dope: Directed by Nigerian-American Rick Famuyiwa, this is another film that is just full of life and insight. I laughed out loud many times, and was in tears by the end, as star Shameik Moore's winsome performance and the big-hearted script -- which hooked me within the first five minutes -- culminated in a rousing finale. The film is not flawless (the voiceover narration seems extraneous, for example), but I disagree with other reviews that says it gets too much on its soapbox at the end. I found the finale to be an effective exclamation point on the end of the satire, and made the plot device of the college essay make more sense. Great film, intelligently examining race and class, with a bunch of great performances beyond Moore's (who wouldn't look out of place on a list of Oscar nominees for Best Actor), especially A$AP Rocky as a drug dealer named Dom. Go see this movie.

Spy: I'd heard that this is Melissa McCarthy's best movie yet, and I think I have to agree. I loved The Heat and liked St. Vincent, but Spy feels like the film that makes the best use of her range of talents; beyond her willingness to just go full on out in support of a laugh, there are legitimately good fight scenes, of which she's the center. The film is indeed silly and broad at times, but it's also revolutionary in a way, too, in putting a woman at the center and continually upending stereotypes; One of the funniest jokes of the movie is that Jason Statham, a smooth lone wolf spy, is also terrible. Besides Statham, Rose Byrne is so good as the villainess, kind of channeling Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and Allison Janney and Miranda Hart round out the cast. It's not perfect (50 Cent never should have been in this movie), but this sure was fun.

Trainwreck: I've been a fan of Amy Schumer's standup for years, and it's been gratifying over the last two seasons to see her TV show, Inside Amy Schumer, become a cultural zeitgeist. This film, directed by Judd Apatow and written by Schumer herself, deftly captures her onstage persona into a film; I haven't laughed so loud at a movie since probably Bridesmaids. The funniest bit are in the first half of the film, particularly involving John Cena as a closeted gay guy Schumer's character is dating, as well as a totally unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Schumer's boss at a trashy men's magazine. The performers have a great time playing around with their characters and the scenes are allowed to breathe, which makes for a longish running time but also hilariously awkward scenes like the first meeting between Bill Hader's hotshot sports doctor and Schumer's interviewer; in that scene, Hader, who has immediate onscreen chemistry with Schumer, calls out Schumer's soft racism in one of the film's many laugh-out loud moments. There's a significant shift in the second half of the film, when Schumer (who studied Theater at Towson University) is asked to carry some dramatic moments, which she handles quite well. A scene or two drags in that second half, but the finale, though outlandishly unbelievable, is quite enjoyable. This film is a ton of fun, a bold artistic statement by a woman who, hopefully, will be a comic force for years to come.

Jurassic World: I don't think I'll ever not go watch a Jurassic film; I grew up loving dinosaurs, thought Jurassic Park was magical, and I still even remember some striking scenes from its sequel (remember when the glass is cracking and Julianna Moore is about to fall through? Woah!). This one isn't as good as either of them, and it's got some weird tone shifts; in one moment, it ruthlessly kills comical human characters, and in other moments, it wants us to feel sympathy for brontosauruses killed by a rampant genetic mutation of a dinosaur. I enjoyed the pterodactyl scene (it reminded me of The Birds) and Chris Pratt; I didn't think the film did enough with the human drama, and the lead female character was annoyingly broad. All and all, it was a decent summertime popcorn flick, but nothing revelatory by any means.

Review: Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

In between two powerful race memoirs -- The Other Wes Moore and Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me -- I picked up and devoured Maria Semple's frothy and funny bestseller Where'd You Go, Bernadette? It hit the spot this summer, and I got a lot of joy out of its characters, sense of humor, and skewering of Seattle suburbanites.

It's mostly a "found novel," written in found e-mails, FBI documents, notes, and reports, with some narrative also weaved throughout. In general, I think this sort of thing is too cute, especially when done in movies, but it's really effective here. There are five main characters, and they all have interesting arcs that they are able to describe themselves, while we're also able to hear others describe them. These characters are rich and multi-faceted, and the format reveals them in layers that are pretty fun to unwrap. And it all works because, despite it being a sometimes biting spoof of suburban life and Portlandia-types (yes, set in Seattle, but same concept applies), the novel has a big mushy heart at its center, this offbeat and loving relationship between mother and daughter, the titular Bernadette and her precocious daughter, Bee.

The results are a paradoxical but satisfying mix of satire and sweetness, an engaging and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny modern novel that somehow involves identity theft, a cruise to Alaska, a virtual assistant from India, the Russian mob, 20-mile houses (where all materials are found within 20 miles of site), TED talks, eccentric geniuses who win MacArthur grants, mud slides, penguins, and a weatherman who reminded me of Maryland weather fanatic Justin Berk. But it's the characters who make us care about the zany adventures of the story, and they're very memorable. I loved the conclusion, in particular. I'm excited about Richard Linklater's film adaptation coming out in a couple of years.

I've had the novel on my "to read" list for a while, but I'm working with a student this summer who was reading it for his college summer reading for the College of Charleston, and he was loving it. That prompted me to pick it up again, and I'm glad I did, even though I feel like everyone's already read this book. If you haven't, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

On Reading Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, but I don’t think it’s a great novel about race. For me, it’s always been Jem’s story, and Atticus, Boo, and even Scout, somewhat, are secondary. The novel begins and ends with Jem’s broken arm, and it’s him -- through the often unknowing eyes of his sister as the narrator -- who realizes the injustice of the world occurring with both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Harper Lee’s older brother Edwin died suddenly at the age of 30 in 1951, and I see To Kill a Mockingbird, written in the years that follow, as an elegy for him, despite the novel being dedicated to her father and the central role that Atticus plays in so many people’s readings of the book.

My personal affections with To Kill a Mockingbird are many: not only do I remember experiences like Jem’s when witnessing the weight of injustice of the world from my place of privilege felt like too much to bear, but, more importantly, it’s also the novel that really most taught me how to teach. When I was assigned to teach the novel in 2001, my first year of teaching it, my memories of Mockingbird were fond ones from my own 9th grade English class ten years before. With that re-reading, and every subsequent re-reading of it, I noticed new things about the novel and was excited about them. This sort of enthusiasm for literary discovery alongside my students was, and is, important to me as a teacher; it’s something I still strive for with the literature I teach (and why I can never really fake it and teach something I’m not excited about). My early years of teaching are filled with memories of 9th graders making pretty profound statements during discussions about the book, and at some point we structured the 9th grade course around works of literature in which characters come of age when they realize the injustice of the world, like Jem does.

I've also been fascinated by Harper Lee, the writer of one great novel. I've read each of her unauthorized biographies, enjoying them both, and once tossed around the idea of driving to Monroeville to seek out Ms. Lee somehow, until I realized this would be the last thing in the world she would want.

Beyond teaching it and relating to it, I think Harper Lee’s book is brilliant as a work of literature as well, from its perfect structure and multi-layered symbolism to its understated lyricism and indelible characters, even the minor ones like Uncle Jack and Miss Maudie. But its treatment of race, from a white perspective, is indeed one-sided. The Black characters are all pretty passive, and we never get to know any of them very well, except perhaps Calpurnia. I don't think this is a problem for the book, unless you're looking at the book to be an in-depth study of race relations. It's not. It's about standing up for what's right and it's about a couple of white kids realizing that people can be racist and unjust.

All those aforementioned characters appear in Go Set a Watchman, though unfortunately Miss Maudie -- the spitfire neighbor who can’t stand the spectacle of the Tom Robinson trial and knows what Atticus and Jem are going through --  is only mentioned once in passing. And it might be her who I miss the most in the new novel, because she likely would have been one to talk to Atticus about his separatist views, or even Jean Louise about her naivete. Instead, we get the ponderous Uncle Jack, who speaks in patronizing literary riddles, an unfortunate Lee technique in this draft; she’s a young writer who seems like she wants to show off her literary meddle. Thankfully, when she revised this draft and turned it into To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Jack is more of a footnote, and the flourish of Victorian allusions is confined mostly to the name of his ancient cat Rose Alymer, who gets much more page time here than she does in Mockingbird, when I think she’s only mentioned once.

(Note: there are a few minor spoilers here, though nothing that hasn't been reported by the media already.)

And now back to Atticus. As mentioned in the media, in Go Set a Watchman, he has turned into a states-rights separatist who hates Brown vs. Board of Education and hates the NAACP, and this is of course saddening to those who viewed him as the moral center of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m not one of those people. Somewhere along the time of watching the movie (which I don’t really like all that much, despite great performances by a few of the actors) a few times -- and seeing Atticus dominate it, which I heard Gregory Peck insisted on -- as well as reading some scholarship on the character, I started not liking him as much. Atticus clearly has a strong moral center and wants to teach his children that, but his defense of Tom Robinson is decidedly paternalistic; it’s only Scout and Jem, who end up being brought to the Black church by Calpurnia, who really see, or even care to see, the humanity of the Black characters. Atticus probably was a revolutionary figure in the 1930s, but that didn’t mean he was in favor of an integrated society, and I’m not sure there’s evidence of that in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I’ve had people I love in my life who I didn’t know were racist until Barack Obama became President; for me, Atticus is like that. He would help a Black man who had a flat tire, or who needed defending in a trial, but once there was a change to the actual societal structure shift, he shows his “states rights” colors, which I would guess is how many 72-year old white Southern gentlemen felt in the mid-1950s. And the novel is about Jean Louise’s dillusionment with that. In a way, To Kill a Mockingbird is partially about Jem’s disillusionment with his hometown, and Go Set a Watchman is Jean Louise’s. The thing is, in To Kill a Mockingbird, things are a lot more cut and dry, and to be a white ally basically meant that you weren’t okay with Black folks getting lynched. In 1931, that was enough, perhaps. Not in 1955, though.
So many emotions while reading... made me dizzy.

But it’s not that easy to connect the dots between the two books; these are not the same world. The Atticus in Go Set a Watchman won the Tom Robinson trial, and the Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird lost the trial, of course. They’re not the same character in the same situation; they’re parallel Atticuses. And that’s probably part of the problem with my review thus far: it’s a comparison review. But it’s hard to not do that; indeed, this book exists because it’s an early draft of what became Mockingbird.

And how is the book? It is what it is: a draft, with plenty of problems. But I’m glad it was published and glad I read it, and certainly enjoyed it at times. In the opening chapters, Harper Lee’s language almost immediately brought me back to the ambling town of Maycomb and Lee’s sardonic rendering of it and its characters: “Alexandra had been married for thirty-three years; if it had made any impression on her one way or another, she never showed it. She had spawned one son, Francis, who in Jean Louise’s opinion looked and behaved like a horse, and who long ago left Maycomb for the glories of selling insurance in Birmingham. It was just as well” (27). I loved this little detail from Jean Louise’s train ride home: “The train clacketed through pine forests and honked derisively at a gaily painted bell-funneled museum piece sidetracked in a clearing. It bore the sign of a lumber concern, and the Crescent Limited (note: the train she’s riding on) could have swallowed it whole with room to spare” (7). I love the word “clacketed,” and it seems to me the sidetracked museum piece is a symbol of the outside world being able to dominate the small, antiquated town of Maycomb. Later that chapter, when the train rushes past the station, we again get the feeling that there’s some symbolism about things moving too fast for Maycomb. I spent most of those first few chapters reading with a smile on my face, living in Maycomb again, letting Harper Lee introduce me to these characters again.

There’s a lot more description of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird, and probably too much dialogue in this novel. I missed reading the paragraphs of imagery, of Boo’s house, of the town streets, of the Ewells’ property, of the Black folks’ part of town. Probably the biggest area of growth for Lee as a novelist between drafts were her skills in detail and description of setting.

The flashbacks that Lee’s editor thought were the strongest part of the novel, strong enough to base a whole novel on, are often very effective. Early on, despite his death, we do get to interact with Jem again through these flashbacks, as well as Dill (modeled after Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote). The flashbacks are big-hearted and amusing, showing some of Lee’s enjoyment of satirizing religion and poking fun at the establishment. But, there’s some awkwardness in the transitions from present to past (a problem she didn’t have to manage in Mockingbird), and, in general, the children make-believe games don’t lead up to the kind of emotional resonance they do in Mockingbird, when the man who Jem and Scout mocked in their Radley Game skit comes back to save them by the end. In Watchman, the skits seem somewhat random, offering just some characterization of Jem and description of Maycomb, but nothing, to my mind, that resonates by the end of the novel. That being said, there is a very funny flashback involving a young Jean Louise thinking she’s pregnant, and a later one that details her relationship with Hank, a new character and love interest for Jean Louise, even though I’m still thinking that Jean Louise could have been gay (“She was afflicted with a restlessness of spirit he could not guess at…”, plenty of language about not understanding men, the relentless tomboyishness), but I digress and there’s no real other evidence there in the language except the stereotypical ones.

Almost halfway through the novel, there’s the moment when Jean Louise’s world comes crashing down, when she discovers -- from the very same spot where she saw him defend a Black man against charges of rape twenty years before -- that Atticus is part of a White Citizen’s Council full of virulently racist members. Lee’s depiction of this moment is really effective: “She pulled herself to her feet clumsily, and stumbled from the balcony down the covered staircase. She did not hear her feet scraping down the broad stairs, or the courthouse clock laboriously strike two-thirty; she did not feel the dank air of the first floor. The glaring sun pierced her eyes with pain, and she put her hands to her face. When she took them down slowly to adjust her eyes from dark to light, she saw Maycomb with no people in it, shimmering in the steaming afternoon. She walked down the steps and into the shade of a live oak. She put her arm out and leaned against the trunk. She looked at Maycomb, and her throat tightened: Maycomb was looking back at her” (111). Jean Louise stumbles away from the town’s center and towards her childhood home, which now hosts an ice cream parlor (note: in real life, this happened to Harper Lee’s childhood home as well… it’s now an ice cream parlor). The chapter is effective and moving, and we as readers who have respected Atticus feel as disoriented by Jean Louise’s discovery as Jean Louise does.

And it’s after this point in the novel where Go Set a Watchman begins to lose me a little. Like in Mockingbird, we have a coffee party with a bunch of women in the town, and it’s fairly effective in showing Jean Louise’s distance from those her age and members of her hometown, but, unlike in Mockingbird, Aunt Alexandra isn’t rendered a sympathetic character, so there’s really no redemption offered in the scene. Later, Lee presents a scene between Jean Louise and an aged Calpurnia that I’ve read and re-read a dozen times and still am not clear what happened, and not clear why Jean Louise, who just had discovered her father was going to take a case defending Calpurnia’s grandson for the sole purpose to get him to plead guilty and prevent NAACP lawyers from taking the case, doesn’t warn Calpurnia about this fact when she's so "progressive."

Later, we get a scene with Hank, who earlier had made a racist comment about Black folks with drivers' licenses as being a “public menace” (80) that Jean Louise ignores, but somehow Jean Louise seems surprised by his presence at the White Citizens Council and is almost as disappointed with him as her father. We have a couple of painful conversations with Uncle Jack, where Jean Louise demonstrates her immaturity and petulance, and Uncle Jack displays requisite racism justification and obfuscation. And when we do finally have a confrontation between father and daughter, in which Jean Louise vacillates between the radicalism (for the time) of being color-blind, to swearing she’d never marry a Black man and being angry that the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision rushed the South too much. She discovers her father’s bigotry, but also must deal with her own, which is milder but is still present; however, the novel never really has her examine herself in this way. By the end, Jean Louise comes to terms with her father, but not herself.

The rendering of that climactic chapter between father and daughter isn’t as compelling as it could have been; it’s almost entirely dialogue, and Jean Louise’s vacillations and harangues are not particularly convincing, even though I’m on her side, and it feels like she is “handled” by both her father and, later, by Uncle Jack in the distressing last chapter of the novel. Jean Louise does break from the moral compass of her father; he is no longer her “watchman,” but her turnabout at the end seems too quick and not complete enough.

The novel mixes nostalgia and disillusionment in equal measures, but ends up feeling pretty dispiriting. It’s a coming of age novel for 26-year old Jean Louise, but she is so scattered in her own anti-Brown vs. Board of Education but “colorblind” views that it’s hard to feel as much sympathy for her as we should. She comes off as inconsistent and whiny, just not very likable.
Harper Lee, like Jean Louise in this book, smoked.

Does this matter for assessing the book? Not really. Protagonists can be whiny; characters, even beloved ones, can have flaws. Looked at alongside To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is messy, sometimes in interesting ways and sometimes in just awkward ways. It’s interesting to examine a character who is good in many ways but is also a segregationist, and, honestly, I don’t think much literature has examined this sort of character before. We certainly have seen novels in which characters return home to find disappointment, and Lee’s novel, set at the cusp of the Civil Rights movement and detailing a white character visiting her sleepy southern town from her adoptive home of New York City, feels a unique addition to this genre. But I found myself wishing for a bit more self-examination from Jean Louise, who engages in soft racism herself. Lee gives her many pages to deliver her decrees, and her views don’t seem very much examined by Jean Louise as a character.

Ultimately, Go Set a Watchman isn’t a great book, but is an interesting one. If we think of it as a sequel to Mockingbird, we can see an intriguing takedown of the White Savior image of that novel. If we think of it as a sketch for Mockingbird, we see a writer developing her skills, determining her strengths and weaknesses, and building or tearing away to create a classic. In both cases, it’s fascinating, even if the novel on its own feels less like a satisfying work of literature and more like a young writer experimenting with her craft and exorcising her demons.

As a teacher, I’m really intrigued by what this addition to the Harper Lee canon might do to my next teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t have any simple answers for that, but it certainly is a compelling dilemma.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Reading and Seeing Ta-Nehisi Coates Discuss His Book 'Between the Worldand Me'

I read Between the World and Me in about a day, and its margins are filled with stars, checkmarks, sad faces, some notes about allusions I had to look up, even some "LOL"s. I'm not a natural text annotator, so this is a lot; I wanted to be able to go back and find the pieces that most struck me. It's that kind of book, one to be read and revisited, often. Between the World and Me is grounded in thoughtful historical research and in the readings and philosophies of many great Black writers and thinkers, but is also a imbued with the fierce urgency of now, with the blood of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and others (all discussed in the text) on our hands. It's essential reading for our world.

The connections to James Baldwin (full disclosure: probably my favorite writer) are obvious and have been spoken a lot of in the media, particularly after Toni Morrison remarked that Coates fills "the intellectual void that plagued (her) since after James Baldwin died" Even tonight in Baltimore -- I saw him speak at the historic Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, not far from the streets Coates grew up on -- he said he read The Fire Next Time and asked his editor Chris Jackson, "Why doesn't anyone write like James Baldwin today?" and Jackson convinced him to do so.

Like "My Dungeon Shook," the book is addressed to a family member and written in the form of a letter; Baldwin to his nephew and Coates to his 15-year old son, Samori. And like Baldwin, Coates writes a lot about white people and our collective blindness to history. Coates -- an atheist, which led to a couple of interesting moments today at the historic Baptist church -- isn't the writer that Baldwin is; his prose doesn't have the rhythmic pulse of the preaching. I noticed that he makes more use of short anaphoric syntax and repetition, perhaps like a poet, whereas Baldwin's built long sentences with those characteristic polysyndeton, em-dashes, and semicolons. And instead of biblical and gospel allusions, Coates offers allusions to hip-hop songs; we also get more of a concentration on women, gay rights, and, of course, modern tragedies such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are included, made more powerful next to the words and visions of Malcolm X.

The book is only 153 pages and 5 chapters; Coates tweeted that he read The Great Gatsby in one sitting and that was one of those moments that made him realize that powerful literature could be short. In the first chapter, he lays out many of the arguments that he will make throughout the text, that racism has been inflicted on this nation, and continues to be, via Black people's bodies: "Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed" (7). He writes about this idea through the entire text, later arguing that "all our phrasing -- race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy -- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth, extracts testicles. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body" (8). Later, he links this repetition of "body" with the word "plunder," writing about his son discovering Michael Brown's killer would have no trial: "You have not yet grappled with your own myths and narratives, and having cut through those discovered the plunder everywhere around us" (19), and later still, he imparts to his son: "you are a bearer of a body more fragile than any other in this country" (141).

In his talk tonight, Coates discusses the fear that dominates the Black lives, saying that he had to ask himself, "How much of my mental space was dominated by keeping myself safe?" In the book, he explains further, describing his childhood in West Baltimore: "The fear was there in the extravagant boys of my neighborhood, in their large rings and medallions, their big puffy coats and full-length fur-collared leathers, which was their armor against their world. They would stand on the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty; or Cold Spring and Park Heights, or outside Mondawmin Mall, with their hands dipped in Russell sweats. I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered 'round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away" (12). I found these parts about his youth in Baltimore, about governing his life according to street rules designed to keep his body safe from violence, especially powerful.

He's got some humor, too: "Somewhere out there beyond the firmament, past the asteroid belt, there were other worlds where children did not regularly fear for their bodies. I knew this because there was a large television resting in my living room... I came to understand that my country was a galaxy, and this galaxy stretched from the pandemonium of West Baltimore to the happy hunting grounds of Mr. Belvedere" (18-19).

Coates is not kind to schools in the text: "I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance" (24). Later: "I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation--those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society would say, 'He should have stayed in school,' and wash its hands of him" (31).

He writes a lot about his dad in The Beautiful Struggle, and I was happy to read a bit about his mom in this book: "She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation" (27). I wish I could convince more of my students that this what writing should be. Investigation.

Chapter two details Coates' attendance at Howard University, which he refers to as "Mecca," the first place where he discovered the profound diversity and beauty of Black people. He also discovered the power of libraries here: "I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people's interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself" (48-49). His words on writing poetry are also wise: "Poetry aims for an economy of truth--loose and useless words must e discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts" (52). But my favorite part of this chapter was Coates' confrontation of his own homophobia, after meeting a Howard professor who was bisexual, married to another bisexual: "'Faggot' was a word I employed all my life. And now here they were, The Cabal, The Coven, The Others, The Monsters, The Outsiders, The Faggots, The Dykes, dressed in all their human clothes. I am black, and I have been plundered and have lost my body. But perhaps I too had the capacity for plunder, maybe I would take another human's body to confirm myself in a community. Perhaps I already had. This is the core of so much hatred--hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, and by naming them we are confirmed within the consensus. But my consensus was shattering around me" (59).

In Chapter 3, the looming figure of Prince Jones, a friend of Coates who was killed by an undercover police officer in 2000 who mistakenly followed him through three jurisdictions before confronting and killing him. Coates argues that the phrase "police reform" is in vogue today, but that the police force has been a product of "democratic will" (77) for decades; the problem lies with us, the democracy, the "majoritarian pigs". Descriptions of Prince will rip your guts out, especially towards the end of the book, as he devotes its conclusion to a heart-wrenching conversation with Dr. Mabel Jones, the mother of Prince: "She alluded to 12 Years a Slave. 'There he was,' she said, speaking of Solomon Northrup. 'He had means. He had family. He was living like a human being. And one racist act took him back. And the same is true of me. I spent years developing a career, acquiring assets, engaging responsibilities. And one racist act. It's all it takes" (149).

Coates has many other arguments, but one of the main ones I haven't described yet is his idea that white people, or at least those who want to look past plundering of bodies in the creation and sustaining of our world, are "Dreamers." In his talk, Coates argued that Slavery and Jim Crow were not just roadblocks on the path to our democratic world today; it's what created it, and throughout the text, Coates critiques these "dreamers" as perpetuators of myths and racism. His words to his son about these "dreamers" are powerful: "Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are not inviolable" (112). This is the argument that reminded me the most of Baldwin, who wrote about white people's "innocence" and his nephew's need to accept this.

This is a book about survival. Unlike Baldwin, he's not trying to brings Blacks and whites together as Baldwin exhorts at the end of "Down at the Cross". Instead, Coates is trying to lay it all out for his son. The advice is to know, and to struggle. The writing is often beautiful; the ideas seek to poke holes in the romantic ideals of America. Between the World and Me is a work of searching, reflecting, and investigating; I loved following his thought processes and arguments, which charged my senses and made me cry and laugh at different parts of the book.

As a white man reading this book, I'm not, according to Coates, the audience he has in mind. I read an interview recently where he said he's always surprised when white people are interested in his stuff. But I'm not sure if I buy it; the audience in Baltimore tonight was decidedly mixed race and that's been my impression of Coates's audience for a while. Coates was quick to correct an audience member today who called him the "Baldwin of our time"; "No," he said. "Baldwin is the Baldwin of our time," and went on to remark about the continued relevance of his work. But Baldwin's audience was mixed race, and I think Coates's is too. He says he's a writer, not an activist, but, after coronation by Morrison as the next Baldwin (who we refer to as a writer and a civil rights activist), I think he may find it difficult to divorce the two. And I'm fine with that.

The oddest part of the book for me was, in the second-to-last paragraph of the book, Coates begins discussing environmentalism. I thought it was a cool connection (he connects it to "plunder"), but it still felt a little out of place, or like something he wanted to get in before the book closed. I'm interested in hearing what others thought about this? Did I miss earlier setup for this?

In his talk today, he read the last chapter of the book in its entirety. It's the climax of the book, an emotionally grueling conversation with a grieving mother whose son, as bright and privileged as he was, could not get past 25 years old with his vulnerable Black body. Reading along with my text, I found it interesting, some of the phrases he decided not to read; he didn't explicitly say, in a church, that he didn't believe in God, taking that phrase off when describing the faces of the 1960s civil rights fighters in photos. He changed "men" to "humans" when discussing the "empire of humans"; that could have been a change in the draft from advance reader's edition. Afterwards, he engaged in a lively question & answer session with the audience, a discussion that covered the kidnapping and torture of Kalief Browder by New York state, and closing with a discussion that it's selfish to struggle only for things that can happen in your lifetime. He talked of Ida B. Wells, who spent her whole life fighting lynching, and it wasn't until 60 years after her death that an official apology ever came about. He talked of himself, fighting for reparations, which he doesn't think will happen for at least three generations. It was inspiring.

I wonder if I can find room in our cramped IB English IV curriculum for students to read some Coates alongside all of our Baldwin this year. I think they'd really dig it. Our school has read A Beautiful Struggle at various times over the last few years, even hosting Coates about five years ago, and this might be a new one to add to our lists of possible books to teach.

Ta-Nehisi Coates at Union Baptist Church in Baltimore on July 15, 2015.
Ta-Nehisi Coates and his dad, Paul, embrace after Paul's introduction of his son.
Paul Coates introduces his son
Kwame Rose, the Baltimore activist who got in that fight with Geraldo Rivera during the Baltimore riots, asks Ta-Nehisi a question about how he approached the riots with his son. Ta-Nehisi answered that he didn't need to say much; his son understood the reasoning behind them.

A shot of the historic Union Baptist Church from outside. Frederick Douglass once preached here! 

There were a lot of cameras. This event took place the day after the book's release.

The mixed race crowd that filled Union Baptist Church.

The book; I have an advanced copy so some of the page numbers might be different than published copy.

The book was signed to me, a wonderful gift from my friend Paula Gallagher.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Poe's Baltimore III: Site of Edgar Allan Poe's death

There's so much history in Baltimore, and I spent some time last summer exploring Edgar Allan Poe's Baltimore and then writing about it on this blog, first visiting where he is buried and then the Poe House and Museum. Now, I haven't been able to explore much this summer like I did last summer, but I was able to spend a bit of time learning about the hospital where Poe died in October of 1849.

Located at 100 North Broadway, at the corner of Lamley St. and N. Broadway (between the major avenues of Fayette St. and Baltimore St.), the Church Home Building is just north of Fell's Point in a little neighborhood called Washington Hill. Originally opened in 1833 and called "Washington Medical College," Poe was brought there on Oct. 3, 1849, after being found "worse for the wear" outside a polling place, also a tavern, on E. Lombard Street. Over the next four days, he was in and out of consciousness in this hospital until he died on Oct. 7. The cause of his illness will probably never be known, with theories ranging from rabies to being poisoned by electioneers to metal or carbon monoxide poisoning. Apparently Poe had been diagnosed with "lesions on the brain" prior to his death, so that lends some credence to a brain tumor theory. We'll never know for sure. 

What is important to note is that it wasn't alcohol -- he didn't drink himself to death nor was he found in a gutter, as I remember hearing when I was in high school -- and that rumor started because an enemy wrote the first obituary for him and mentioned this, and the story stuck. The doctor on site, Dr. Moran, concluded that Poe had not been drinking and, because his clothes were ill-fitting and dirty, he thought he had been mugged and that his clothes had been changed. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has a great account of this all here and here.

After Poe's death in 1849, the hospital was still full of history. Across the street from the Church Home Building in the middle of Broadway, there's a historical marker describing a woman named Adeline Blanchard Tyler, a nurse from Massachusetts who tried to gain access to the hospital after several union soldiers were wounded in the Baltimore Riots of 1861, which was a riot between soldiers traveling down from Massachusetts and confederate sympathizers; it produced the first deaths of the Civil War conflict. Ms. Tyler was denied access to her soldiers, until she said, "I am a Massachusetts woman seeking to do good to the citizens of my own state. If not allowed to do so I must send a telegram to Governor Andrews informing him that my request has been denied." They let her in then. It sounds like she continued to lead a pretty cool life, establishing a hospital at Camden Station and later Annapolis. The Church Home Building closed in 1999 as a hospital, and now holds condos and is called "Broadway Overlook." 

Across the street from the Church Home Building, in the median strip, is a little park with a big statue of Ferninand Claiborne Latrobe, who was mayor Baltimore for 7 years in the 19th century. 

About 25 yards north, there is a column erected to Thomas Wildey, who founded the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1819 after emigrated to the U.S. in 1817. This was a fraternity dedicated to philanthropic goals, and the wording on the column supports this: "He who realizes that the true mission of man on earth is to rise above the level of individual influence and to recognize the fatherhood of God overall and the brotherhood of man is nature's true nobleman," which is a quote by Wildey. The monument was erected in 1865, four years after Wildey's death in 1861, and shows a little worse for the wear, but I could make out most of the words: "This column erected by the joint contributions of the lodges of encampments and individual members of the Independent Order of the Odd Fells of the United States of American and jurisdiction thereunto belonging commemorates the founding of that order in the city of Baltimore on the 26th day of April 1819 by Thomas Wildey" on one side and "We command you to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphans," which is one of the tenants of the fraternity, which still exists to this day.

The site of Poe's death is 100 N. Broadway in Baltimore
A different shot of the sign on Broadway.

Based on the Baltimore Edgar Allan Poe Society's words, the room in which Poe died would have been on the second floor, to the left over the porch: "based on information provided by Poe‘s attending physician, Dr. John J. Moran, the room in which Poe died was in the tower on the far left, on the second floor, above and to the left of the roof to the porch." The building isn't open to the public; I'm really curious if the plaque outside the room remains.

The entrance to the little park in Washington Hill, located in the median across from the Church Home Building.

A shot of the statue of Mayor Latrobe, complete with the Baltimore prop of a Natty Boh can. The monument was erected in 1914 to commemorate a 7-year mayor of Baltimore who was mayor from 1877-1885.

The lovely path between the Latrobe statue and the Wildey column, lined with crepe myrtles.

Yup, this is Baltimore, where the fast food litter could be the remnants of crabs as well as McDonald's.
A nice shot of the Wildey column, erected in 1865 to commemorate the founder of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

close-up shot of the wording on the Wildey column.

The south side of the Wildey column.

Site marker honoring Adeline Blanchard Tyler, a Civil War nurse who worked at the hospital.
Shot from back of Church Home Building: a nice view of the city.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Reading and Teaching The Other Wes Moore

I've been hearing about The Other Wes Moore for years, but never read the acclaimed memoir until this spring. After reading the reviews, knowing the basic outline of the book, and conferring with a colleague who has taught the memoir for the last three years, I decided would be an excellent read for rising 9th grade students, so made it a part of my curriculum for the Baltimore Bridges program I'm working this summer. 

Since I made the decision and read the book in preparation for teaching it, I haven't been disappointed. This is one of those books that I think everyone should read, a book that I read with an almost perpetual lump in my throat and definitely shed some tears several times. It's not enough just to know the gist of the story -- that this is about two young men, roughly the same age and with similar backgrounds, both geographically and economically, and who happen to share the same name -- because Wes Moore's (the writer) execution is powerful and convincing. 

Moore lays out his purpose in the introduction with this potent sentence: "This book is meant to show how, for those of us who live in the most precarious places in this country, our destinies can be determined by a single stumble down the wrong path, or a tentative step down the right one." The rest of the book is divided into eight chapters, each of which links a different facet of each Wes Moore's background. Chapter 1, "Is Daddy Coming With Us?", showcases how kids lose their fathers; Chapter 2, "In Search of Home," details both mothers seeking out a more safe and secure home for their kids, etc. Moore weaves both narratives pretty seamlessly, especially early on. It gets a little more difficult in the second half of the memoir, when Moore goes to military school and later joins the Army, whereas the other Wes Moore is mostly either being a successful drug dealer or languishing while he attempts to go straight. 
The fateful night when the other Wes Moore is involved in an armed robbery of a jewelry store is left mostly unexamined, because that other Wes Moore never admits to even being there, despite his DNA being found on a necklace at the scene and despite him going on the run with his brother, who admitted to being the trigger man who killed a police sergeant working as a security guard to sustain his wife and 5 young children. Moore, the writer, doesn't let us forget that the officer killed, Bruce Prothero, and his family are "the only victims that day." Later, Moore writes he "recoiled from (the other Wes Moore's) ability to shed responsibility seamlessly and drape it at the feet of others."

I get the sense that the writer Wes Moore, who I've had some minor interactions with over the years and can say personally say is really nice and even great person, probably hesitated about that line, one of the only harsh lines in the entire book. Because The Other Wes Moore is so compassionate, big-hearted and inquisitive, it does not seek to cast much blame on people but, rather, examines the impact of situations and fate. The writer Wes Moore was troubled as a youth and got some second chances, as does the other Wes Moore, particularly during a tragic chapter that recounts his JobCorps training to be a carpenter; however, as the other Wes Moore recounts in an especially poignant vignette, "...if the situation or the context where you make the decisions don't change, then second changes don't mean too much, huh?" (65). 

I've been teaching the book for about a week now, and the rising 9th grade students, most of whom are 13 years old, are really enjoying it. The students love reading about areas that they know -- the other Wes Moore grew up exclusively in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and we hear specifics about the Cherry Hill and Northwood neighborhoods, and streets like Cold Spring Lane and Charles. The Murphy Homes are discussed frequently and, while these kids don't know them personally because they were demolished years ago, they've heard of them and know the cultural rules about responses to disrespect that places like Murphy Homes teach. 

Additionally, some passages are so relevant to 2015 that they could have been written this spring, and not just about the 1968 riots: "The bitter riots were sparked by King's assassination, but the fuels that kept them burning were the preexisting conditions: illegal but strictly enforced racial segregation, economic contraction, and an unresponsive political system. Looters ran free as the city exploded with anger.... National Guard troops patrolled the community, but their presence created more resentment, not to mention fresh targets for rock-toting kids. Soon it became clear the Riots were about more than the tragic death of Dr. King. They were about anger and hurt so extreme that rational thought was thrown out the window--these were people so deranged by frustration that they were burning down their own neighborhood. The Riots in Baltimore, particularly West Baltimore, got so bad that 'Little' Melvin Williams, a legendary drug dealer and one of the most powerful men in the city at the time, was recruited by the mayor to help quell the violence. Tellingly, his influence had considerably more effect than any efforts of any politician or soldier" (18-19).

We discussed this passage, and its connection to the Freddie Gray riots, all the way to the recruitment of gangs to quell violence. And we've had several powerful discussions about other aspects of the book, how the concept of home shifts and creates who we are as individuals, the role of mentors and friends in the decisions we make, and even some of how larger political decisions affect individuals, based especially on writer Wes Moore's condemnation of the elimination of most Pell grants by President Reagan in 1984, which force Mary Moore (the other Wes Moore's mother) to drop out of college.

Our assessment for the book will be to use it as a springboard to get the kids to write about their own experience with the sort of reflection and writing style that Wes Moore employs. We've been analyzing imagery, symbolism, and syntax at a sentence level and will begin practicing our own versions of these techniques next week.

As I've been teaching the book in the summer, I've been trying to think of a good way to bring it into our own 9th grade curriculum. The book is so much about the important themes that we examine in 9th grade English: the journeys we take, the liminality we all feel in certain ways, and our response to the injustice we will experience in life and how that response helps us grow up. The Other Wes Moore is a book that captures and examines these themes in a beautiful and powerful narrative, and even beyond the 9th grade curriculum, I hope that everyone picks up this book and read about how life's paths are formed, especially for those who grow up without privilege.

Meanwhile, I'm going to read Moore's latest, The Work, and continue to hope he runs for mayor of Baltimore someday.

Some colleagues and I ran into Wes Moore last year at Station North Arts Cafe.