Sunday, March 12, 2017

Recent Books

After a half-decade of precipitous decline in book learning, I'm back on track for a fifty-plus volume year. Of course fifty-plus volumes is about half what I used to read, but it beats the abominable and inexcusable past five years. But being a teacher is hard. The last thing I want to do after work is read!

SPQR is a tidy and engaging exploration of current scholarship about Roman history from its beginnings to its fall. Of course doing all this in one volume means one gets a SKETCHY history, but Beard knows what she's about, and her focus on a few key themes (such as the foundational myths of the Roman state and their resonance and recurrence and use by the powerful) keeps the volume from bogging down or seeming too light. I enjoyed it immensely.

A passionate, heavily documented, and well-argued case for the re-establishment of John Brown as more than just a fanatical curiosity in US History. At times there's a bit TOO MUCH hagiography, as in the chapter about poetry and music which seems to claim that John Brown was the topic of every poem ever written...but I agree that his impact on the fabric of America cannot be understated, and that he was purposefully diminished by a century of haters in order to make him appear a crazed terrorist and no more for a reason.

Brown's raid terrified the South and inflamed their passionate fear-mongering of Northern aggressors, and his martyrdom was latched onto by propagandists in the North who created a myth and a series of patriotic and religious songs about Brown's scaffold equating to the Crucifix. It was his speeches and correspondence between capture and hanging which made him a substantial man of letters, words that inflamed the Transcendentalists to memorialize him, and which laid the groundwork for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Brown believed more ardently than 95% of his fellow Abolitionists in the humanity of black folk, and their equality, and that God hated slavery. He also knew it would require tons of blood to cleanse it from America. It has yet to be cleansed.

H,P. Lovecraft imagined bizarre and bleak alternate realities which have captured the imaginations of introvert nerds for decades. I include myself in that category, though I must admit that since adolescence has passed I find much of his stuff completely unendurable. But the impact he had on my imagination lingers, despite the fact that I learned later he was an irascible racist and would likely have found Hitler's Final Solution quite satisfying had he lived to know about it.

So this "novel" (actually a series of interconnected novellas) sets a family of African Americans in a Lovecraft Mythos tale, replete with a wizard family, subterranean chambers in New England, inbred small town communities harboring ancient lore, etc, etc. Of course the complications of racism and racial intolerance and violence against persons of color are the TRUE horrors in this story, as the heroes and heroines of the tale are more than a match for their white wizard opponents and the many eldritch terrors they encounter. Lovecraft Country is not on a par with Junot Diaz's stuff, but is in the same vein--kind of Chabon-ish in tone and humor and delight in mining a vein of pop culture and fleshing it out with social commentary.

Stories without exception of a very high quality. Bobbie Ann Mason, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor---Gaitskill belongs right up there. Includes the source story for that kind of crappy "Secretary" movie, which isn't nearly as funny and sad as it should have been,

Sunday, January 22, 2017


A couple years back I read an interesting article in Harper's about some dude who was using ancient Greek tragedies to help soldiers with PTSD and addicts and communities of color following tragedies.

Last night we had the opportunity to see one here in Baltimore. Antigone in Ferguson was necessary medicine for a community still suffering following the Uprising. Paul Giamatti went deep and when I used the restroom at the end of the show he was in there bawling following his powerhouse performance. The discussion afterward was potent and honest, though a few speakers took too much time tooting their own horns. The panelists were wise and compassionate (even towards a poor young soul whose heart was in the right place but whose exasperation and "exhaustion" at having these conversations over and over was handled with care). And local activists and artists like Sonja Sohn and Adam Jackson and Kwame Rose and D. Watkins were in-house.

(sidenote: When we left the auditorium Rose and Sohn were outside. I thanked Mr. Rose for opening eloquently for Bernie Sanders at a rally at Royal Farm Arena last year, and Sohn yelled "Yes, if it had been Bernie we wouldn't be dealing with ANY of this BULLSHIT." We'd met Sohn at a Heather Mizeur event at Black Olive 2 years back).

What we need in the US is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, much like South Africa had after Apartheid. We need to bare our souls and concerns and guilts and fears in public, focused on ways to heal--otherwise we'll continue refighting the same battles. Because it is unlikely our dysfunctional public institutions will give us the opportunity to air grievances and mea culpas, the arts can help. Kudos to Bryan Doerries and his team for bringing Antigone in Ferguson to B'more.