In Women, Race & Class, Angela Y. Davis looks at US history from colonial times onwards and highlights the many moments when sexism, racism, classism, or some combination of all three prevented various progressive social movements from reaching their full potential. With solidarity, Davis argues, societal transformation is possible; without it, things only get so far. I knew some of this history but not all of it: my early exposure to feminism was definitely to the white middle-class variety (including some lesbian/queer perspectives), and what I learned in school about the woman suffrage movement/early women’s rights movement in the US didn’t focus on the way it “all but ignored the predicament of white working-class women, as it ignored the condition of Black women in the South and North alike,” as Davis puts it. While some, like Sarah and Angelina Grimke, realized “the inseparability of the fight for Black Liberation and the fight for Women’s Liberation,” others, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, saw those goals as having points of competition and conflict, and ignored the fact that “the abolition of slavery had not abolished the economic oppression of Black people, who therefore had a special and urgent need for political power.”

The chapter on Education and Liberation was super-interesting, and I liked learning about the Black and white women Davis highlights in the “Communist Women” chapter, none of whom I had previously heard of.

I picked this book up from a Little Free Library near me and it had a sticker + bookmark in it saying it was selected thanks to donations from the Little Free Diverse Libraries project, which I hadn’t heard about before. I’m grateful to have had the prompt to read this book, and I’m going to put it back in the Little Free Library where I found it so that someone else can learn from it too.

I didn’t realize when I requested this slim book of essays from the library that all nine pieces in it are also in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, which I’ve been meaning to read since, um, 2013 but haven’t yet, but that’s OK: Perec is great, and I find small books like this charming. The pieces range from literary criticism (like the opening piece, which is about Robert Antelme’s L’espèce humaine) to the more clearly personal (like “Some of the Things I Really Must Do Before I Die”, which is a list of 37 items). Questions of organization and categorization come up repeatedly, whether in the title piece or in the excellent “‘Think/Classify'”, which is probably my favorite piece in the book. Throughout, there are a bunch of lists, which I love. Perec talks about his writing life from various angles—the kinds of writing he does, the objects that surround him as he works (in a great piece called “Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work-table”), what interests him. He writes about reading, too, in an essay called “Reading: A Socio-Physiological Outline,” in which he says this: “Reading isn’t merely to read a text, to decipher signs, to survey lines, to explore pages, to traverse a meaning; it isn’t merely the abstract communion between author and reader, the mystical marriage between the Idea and the Ear. It is, at the same time, the noise of the Métro, or the swaying of a railway compartment, or the heat of the sun on a beach and the shouts of the children playing a little way off, or the sensation of hot water in the bath, or the waiting for sleep…”

My other favorite piece in this collection is “Approaches to What?”, in which Perec talks about how the “daily papers talk of everything except the daily” and wonders: “What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?” I love his suggestions for exploring the ordinary in this piece: “Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare” and “Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out” and “How many movements does it take to dial a phone number. Why?”

Sticker by Henry Hoke

March 12th, 2022

Sticker is a “memoir in 20 stickers”: twenty short essays that range in timespan and topic from the Mr. Yuk stickers of Henry Hoke’s early childhood (adorning bottles of cleaning supplies under the sink) to a “Hilton Head” HH bumper sticker that also makes Hoke think of his own initials, and of “Heil Hitler”, and of Heather Heyer, who was killed while peacefully protesting the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where Hoke also grew up. Several of the pieces involve a consideration of/reckoning with the racism of the South (and of America more generally): Hoke, who is white, talks about the very different architecture of one school built in Charlottesville in the 1920s for Black students and another built, at the same time, for white students; he talks about his own great-great-grandfather in Alabama who “drafted election laws” that were “designed specifically to disenfranchise newly eligible Black voters”; he talks about Jefferson and Monticello and UVA and the buildings that were constructed and the grounds that were cleared by enslaved people. Other pieces are more directly about Hoke’s experiences and memories, whether that’s about growing up with a mom who uses a wheelchair, or having “I AM GAY” painted on his car with shoe polish when he was a teenager, or kissing a boy at summer camp. Sometimes the stickers are central to the pieces; other times they’re more tangential. Hoke and I are close in age, and I liked reading Hoke’s memories of cultural reference points that resonate with me, too: the “Mr. Men” books, Lisa Frank stickers, Airheads candy and “the great white shark in the aquatic fruit snacks”, the song “Both Hands” by Ani DiFranco.

The Fire Next Time consists of two essays, one short and the other longer, both a mix of the personal and the more general, both about being Black in America. I’d read part of the longer piece in The New Yorker, and it made me want to read the whole thing.

The first piece (the shorter one) is in the form of a letter from Baldwin to his teen nephew, on the occasion of “the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” pointing out that America still has a long way to go. Of the circumstances of his nephew’s birth, Baldwin writes this: “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish.” And this: “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” He talks about white people being “trapped in a history which they do not understand”, and deluded by their history into maintaining racist beliefs (which are themselves delusional). And then, at the end of the piece, there’s this: “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.”

The idea of freedom or the lack thereof recurs in the book’s longer piece, which begins with Baldwin’s recollections of his own teen years, in which Christianity seemed to him to be a path to safety, until it no longer felt that way. Later in the piece, Baldwin talks about the Nation of Islam and recounts an evening he spent with Elijah Muhammad and some Nation of Islam members in Chicago. But neither Christianity nor the Nation of Islam, Baldwin feels, gets anyone anywhere: both, he argues, are based on fictions (the fiction of a white God, the fiction of a Black Allah) and neither operates with sufficient love, which, to Baldwin, is humanity’s only real chance at getting anything right. Baldwin writes about his own childhood experiences with racism and with the cruelty of the police; he writes about walking to the library when he was 13 and hearing a cop mutter the n-word as he walks past, and about a frightening and cruel encounter when he was 10 in which two policemen left him “flat on [his] back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.” About this, and about his friends’ reactions to similar experiences, he writes this: “One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.” He writes, too, of the sense of fear of growing up Black in a racist country, even before being old enough to understand or be fully aware of it: he writes that the Black child “must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary.” He writes of the despair of feeling that “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you.” And yet, through and despite all that, Baldwin writes about keeping going, about living anyway, about wanting to be “larger, freer, and more loving,” while also not having any illusions about that being easy or inevitable.

I love the rhythms of Baldwin’s prose, the pacing of his long sentences; the pieces in this book speak movingly of his experiences and Black American experiences more generally, and make me want to read more of his work.

I think I knew I was going to love this book from Macfarlane’s description of it in his author’s note, in which he says the book is about “people and place” and the “relationship between paths, walking and the imagination” and “the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.” The book is divided into four parts—two set in England, one set in Scotland, and one set in other places “abroad”; within each part, the book is divided into chapters, each of which (mostly) talks about a particular journey Macfarlane took, by foot or by boat. The book is also a way for Macfarlane to think through the work and life of the writer Edward Thomas, who died in 1917 at the Battle of Arras: Macfarlane quotes from and talks about Thomas throughout, and there’s a chapter devoted to him that imagines his time in France, and his death.

Macfarlane’s writing is really great: very observant, very graceful, playful (at the end of the book he talks about “rights of way and rites of way”) and full of detail and lists, both of which I love. Whether Macfarlane is talking about a snowy night-time walk near his home in Cambridge, England or a walk in the West Bank with his friend Raja Shehadeh, in a place with “jasmine, lemon and bougainvillea lining the streets, scenting the air,” I’m so there for all of his descriptions. And the book is often a blend of the personal and the historical, which is a thing I enjoy in general, and that I think Macfarlane does really well. So for example in a chapter about the chalk formations of southeast England he talks about Neolithic times, and how “dense forest” would have meant “the chalk ridges would have offered the obvious routes of travel,” and how that means that “over time, along their crests, the first real footpaths emerged,” and he also talks about his experience of that same landscape now—light, flowers, lichen, skylarks, deer.

Isolarion by James Attlee

December 21st, 2021

I read and really liked James Attlee’s book on moonlight, Nocturne, back in 2010, and I think it was after that when I spotted this book in a secondhand shop in either Cambridge or London and decided I needed to buy it. I’ve never been to Oxford, but I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of Cowley Road, the multicultural commercial center of East Oxford, where Attlee lives. The book is an engaging mix of the historical and the personal and the reportorial, as Attlee visits various places on Cowley Road and talks to various locals about a number of topics, while also talking about the history of the area and about other aspects of history more broadly. At the start, Attlee talks about the idea of making a pilgrimage, and then talks about making a pilgrimage in many pieces, and close to home. He wants to undertake “an urban, post-modern, fragmentary pilgrimage that could be dipped in and out of” rather than a pilgrimage that’s a journey far away that takes you wholly out of your normal routines.

So: this book is a Cowley Road pilgrimage, but we get glimpses of other pilgrimages for contrast: Attlee talks to a friend who has written about French priests making pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the 16th century, and to a Muslim neighbor who has undertaken the hajj; he also talks about St. Edmund’s Well in Oxford, which was itself a pilgrimage site in the 13th century. Attlee’s associative style really works for me; I like the way he jumps between places and times. And I like all the local details of Cowley Road that Attlee captures, all the places he visits (some of which have of course closed/changed/moved between when this book came out and now): he goes to pubs and cafes, talks to a jeweller, tries out a float tank, learns about the Chabad movement from a rabbi after reading about the opening of a mikvah, visits a car factory, and more. He quotes Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Peter Ackroyd (“The city itself is a form of literature in which the streets are the lines of a book that can never be completed”) and takes part in various planning exercises to do with the future of Cowley Road/possible aesthetic and safety improvements to it. He goes to a reggae show and to Carnival, and talks to an artist named Jo Thomas who led a walk on the summer solstice “visiting places mentioned in ancient records as being the locations of wells and springs.” I like the way Attlee writes about the built environment and the natural world and the moods of certain moments: like this description of a graveyard: “In certain weather conditions in winter, the ground emits a mist that hangs in ribbons between the gravestones, taking on a sulphuric tint under the street lights.” Or this, from when he has dinner in a neighbor’s yard: “the wheeling, screaming swifts are replaced by bats that flutter silently above our heads, the intricate calligraphy of their flight paths indecipherable as daylight fades and night pours into the gardens of East Oxford.”

I’m sure I’d read at least parts of A Room of One’s Own before, but I’m not sure if I’d read the whole thing. Having just read Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms, which quotes repeatedly from this and exists in part in relation to it, I figured I should read it in its entirety. So, right: asked to talk about “women and fiction” Woolf wonders whether she should talk about “women and what they are like” or “women and the fiction that they write” (or don’t write) or “women and the fiction that is written about them” (or the non-fiction that is written about them, which may I guess be fiction too, in the sense of it being lies/untrue). She ends up talking about all of those things and more, with the thesis that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”: she argues that historically, the fact that women have lacked those things explains why they didn’t, generally, become writers of fiction earlier.

If you’ve heard one thing about this book you’ve probably heard about the part where Woolf imagines the depressing life that Shakespeare’s sister would have had, if he had had a sister who was as gifted and as driven to write and/or act as he was. If you’ve heard another thing about this book, you’ve probably heard about how Woolf talks about the “androgynous” mind, borrowing an expression from Coleridge. I remembered those parts, but had forgotten the parts about Lady Winchilsea and Margaret Cavendish and Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen, or maybe I hadn’t read those parts before: Woolf argues that if a woman’s indignation at the position of women in society comes through in her poetry or fiction, it suffers for it. (She thinks that men’s writing can suffer for being overly male, too, whatever that means. She says “it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.” She also says that “the weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind” are different from a woman’s.)

What I love, and hadn’t really remembered, are the excellent bits of description in various moments of the book. In the first section, Woolf imagines a woman writer comparing a men’s college and a women’s college—noticing the comforts of the former compared to the latter, and thinking of the money and history of the former—and how its spaces exclude women—and I love the descriptions of the lawns, the dining rooms, a campus at “the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat of an excitable heart.” Also this, later, about the bustle of the city: “London was like a workshop. London was like a machine. We were all being shot backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern.”

White Magic by Elissa Washuta

October 30th, 2021

I like the three-act structure of White Magic a lot—how Washuta plays with dramatic structure, the idea of beginning/middle/end, the idea of the three parts of a magic trick as described in the movie The Prestige (the pledge, the turn, the prestige). As far as the individual essays, there are some I love, and some I just admire: like, I appreciate what Washuta is doing with multiple/overlapping/circling time lines in the long piece near the end called “The Spirit Cabinet,” but also, I’ve never seen Twin Peaks so the way she’s using it as a point of reference is sort of lost on me. (I’ve also never played Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Oregon Trail, but I love Washuta’s essay about playing the latter as a Native American, her Native female self playing the game as a white male settler character, seeing the landscapes of the game while thinking about her real Native ancestors—the differences between a white person’s imagining of past Native people, general or specific, and her own imagining of them.)

I like the way Washuta writes about landscape and place alongside her personal history and broader histories in essays like “The Spirit Corridor” (which talks about the underground fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, and how her dad’s family worked in coal mines, and about remembering some good moments in a bad relationship) and in “Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and Shades of Death” (which talks about the landscape of the part of New Jersey where Washuta grew up—the lakes, the bears, how European settlers renamed Native places in what Washuta imagines as “a kind of white magic, an incantation against the wickedness they believed was striated into the bedrock”). Elsewhere, in “White City” and “Centerless Universe”, Washuta talks about the Seattle landscape—where she lived for a time, where her Cowlitz ancestors were from, where she had an artist’s residency in the tower of a bridge. (I love that this piece includes Seattle history—including how the land was literally reshaped on a massive scale in earth-moving/”regrading” exercises to make the city more level—and also the experience of playing Pokémon Go as a distraction from a relationship that’s on the verge of ending/has just ended.)

In general I tend to really like illustrated/graphic memoirs, and The Secret to Superhuman Strength is no exception. In this one, Alison Bechdel tells some stories from her life, organized by decade, through the lenses of 1) exercise/physical pursuits and 2) ideas about/struggles with self-transcendence. Tied to the latter, there is a lot about Buddhism in this book (particularly Zen Buddhism), and writers like Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, and Adrienne Rich make repeat appearances, too. There’s a lot going on, but I think it really works: whether she’s talking about the Diamond Sutra or her first long bike trip, Bechdel’s narrative voice makes for enjoyable reading. It was lots of fun to read about Bechdel’s childhood forays into meditative physical pursuits, from tossing a tennis ball by herself to skiing with her family to how she started to run “to blow off steam” and eventually realized it was both a way of “recovering” and “losing” herself (66, 68). Bechdel writes about getting very into karate when she was in her 20s, and about doing her first pull-up from a dead hang in her 30s (yessss!), and about various relationships in her life (romantic and familial, and her relationship with herself, and her relationship with her work) and how those relationships changed/shifted at various points as her physical pursuits changed. Throughout the book, I like the interplay between the words and the drawings, and how sometimes they relate in a literal way while other times they only relate metaphorically. One of my favorite pages in the book is near the end, when Bechdel is talking about Buddhism and exercise and drinking and the tensions between them, and the drawings show her setting up and walking on a slackline, with three panels showing (through the colors, the trees, and her clothes) the same place in spring, in summer, and in fall.

A lot of the negative reviews of this book on Goodreads seem to be from people who had issues with the amount of swearing, sex (including queer sex), and bathroom emergencies in these twenty essays. Those things are all fine with me, but humor as a genre isn’t always my thing: it’s rare for this kind of book to get to “I loved it” territory for me. That said, I definitely liked this book, some pieces more than others. Anything involving reality TV (or, honestly, TV in general) is kinda lost on me, so the personal essay in the form of a faux application to be on the Bachelorette that opens the book was not my fave. But things got better for me from there. Shared pop-culture reference-points in this kind of personal essay are fun, and Irby and I are around the same age, so even though the TV stuff was not for me, I was there for the Tori Amos/Ani DiFranco/Mazzy Star/Portishead references—and yes, I too had Björk’s “Post” on cassette.

Highlights for me included essays about relationship dynamics, from “A Blues for Fred” (about getting to a place of being friends with an ex) to “Mavis” (about sex and intimacy with her then-girlfriend/now-wife) to “I’m In Love and It’s Boring” (reflecting on dating an unavailable guy from the place of being in a happy/stable relationship) to “Thirteen Questions to Ask Before Getting Married” (in which Irby answers the titular thirteen questions, which come from a New York Times article). I also really liked “Happy Birthday” (which is about learning about the death of her semi-estranged father) and “Nashville Hot Chicken” (about a trip to scatter her father’s ashes), both of which are more serious/nuanced than funny per se. As far as straight-up humor goes, I loved “A Civil Union”, which involves going to a wedding in suburban Illinois and stumbling upon a Civil War re-enactment.