n i g h t i n g a l e s h i r a z / shelf
Michela Murgia | Accabadora
Michela Murgia | Accabadora

I loved the opaqueness that lies, thick like boiled wool, across so much of this stark, sparse book:

Maria was six years old, a mistake after three things done right.

But now, in the house of this woman, she began to experience the unfamiliar feeling that she mattered.

And I love that this opaqueness seems likewise, to matter — like lining in a carefully tailored, precisely seamed suit:

“To hell with them, a job lost . . . but with some things it’s better not to know the exact measurements, Maria. Do you follow me?”

Maria had not understood anything at all but nodded all the same, because you cannot always expect to understand everything you hear the minute you hear it.

“Clever girl, because that’s important too; it isn’t only with their mouths that people eat.”


And I loved the eerie, fleeting freshness of the idioms — like a language you both know and don’t.

As a widow with four daughters, Anna Teresa Listru had dwindled from being poor to being destitute and learning, as she often was heard to say, to make stew with the shadow of the church bell.

Bonaria Urrai knew it too, which was why she would walk with her head held high and would never stop to talk to anyone but go straight home stiff as a rhymed verse after going out each morning to collect her new-baked bread.

One grape had fermented and rotted in the sun, but once she had taken that out there was nothing left but the normal smell of grapes, much more like a colour than a smell.


I bought this book at a bookstore in Rome, on the seventy-fifth day of whatever it is we will call it one day, this world we have all been living in, since October 7th.  And so, after I finished it (in a matter of hours, all two-hundred or so pages of it...), I got to wondering as one does, what Michela Murgia might have said about this world.  I found some things.

At fifteen years of age Bonaria had already been able to understand that with some things, doing them yourself or watching others do them involves the same degree of guilt...

Of course I found some things.

[Acquired on a daytrip to Rome, from the lovely Libreria Panisperna 220, in December 2023.]
[Devoured in the course of the day — some at Ai Tre Scalini, some on the Freccia home...]

Adania Shibli | Minor Detail
Adania Shibli | Minor Detail

We begin with a mirage.  There are shades here of Woolf (I’m thinking in To the Lighthouse especially, of the way Woolf moves from looking at a thing, to looking from the thing...  I’m thinking of the way a wind can carry across eras...).  And shades too, of Sebald and Pessoa and Ernaux...  Of writing that feels sparse and stark and deathly efficient...  And yet extravagant, flagrant — even greedy — in its way with darknesses...  Shades then, of writing that feels at once precise and yet impressionistic, expressionistic, a little bit careening.  A dream going very quietly and carefully out of control.

Except of course.  All of this is realer than any of us would like, these days especially.  These days especially, as we talk in every collective, every reading, and every teach-in, about what it means to comprehend beyond words and phrases in the abstract, like apartheid and ethnostate and siege and blockade...

About what it means and what it feels like too, to comprehend — like the heft and shape of a stone in your hand — some flash of actual, lived, material reality.

I call the author of the article, an Israeli journalist, and try to pass myself off as a self-confident person.  I introduce myself as a Palestinian researcher, while trying as hard as possible not to stutter, and explain the reason for my call. [...] I ask if he would share with me the documents in his possession which relate to the incident.  He replies that everything he has is there in the article.  I add that, even so, I would like to look at them myself, and he says that if that’s what I’d like, I can go and look for them myself.  Where?  I ask him.  In museums and archives of the Israeli military and Zionist movements from the period, and those specializing in the area where the incident occurred.  And where are they?  He replies, in a tone betraying that his patience has nearly expired, that they’re in Tel Aviv and in the north-west Negev.  Then I ask him if, as a Palestinian, I can enter these museums and archives?  And he responds, before putting down the receiver, that he doesn’t see what would prevent me.  And I don’t see what would prevent me either, except for my identity card.  The site of the incident, and the museums and archives documenting it, are located outside Area C, according to the military’s division of the country, and not only that, but they’re quite far away, close to the border with Egypt, while the longest trip I can embark on with my green identity card, which shows I’m from Area A, is from my house to my new job.  Legally, though, anyone from Area A can go to Area B, if there aren’t exceptional political or military circumstances that prevent one from doing so.  But nowadays, such exceptional circumstances are in fact the norm, and many people from Area A don’t even consider going to Area B.  In recent years, I haven’t even gone as far as Qalandiya checkpoint, which separates Area A and Area B, so how can I even think of going to a place so far that it’s almost in Area D?  Even the people from Area B cannot do that, and probably also those from Area C, including people from Jerusalem, whose very existence constitutes a security threat if they utter a word of Arabic outside their areas.  They’re permitted, of course, to be in Area A, as are residents of Area B, who frequently visit it, and sometimes move there, despite the fact that it’s tantamount to a prison now.  At my new job, for instance, in addition to people, like me from Area A, many of my colleagues are from other Areas, all very nice people.  One day at work, I confide in a colleague from Area C, from Jerusalem, that I need to go to her Area, or perhaps a bit further, to take care of a personal matter; after all, it’s not unusual for people from Area A to need to go to Area C for personal matters, and for people from Area C to need to go to Area A for personal matters.  On hearing that, my colleague offers to lend me her blue identity card, since we’re all brothers and sisters in the end, and we look similar too, at least in the eyes of the soldiers at the checkpoint. [...] Yes, I can easily use her identity card, do what I need to do and return it when we arrive at work at the beginning of next week.  No rush at all.  And she’ll spend the weekend in Ramallah with friends.  Of course, if I’m discovered, I’ll say that I stole the identity card from her bag, so as not to implicate her.  At any rate, I have to be cautious.  And I’ll certainly make every effort not to be reckless.  So, on the afternoon of the last day of the working week, I stop by her office, borrow her identity card and head to a car rental company to rent a car with a yellow number plate, without which one cannot travel to areas beyond Area C.

Like a stone in your hand.  Do you feel it?

[Downloaded in October of 2023, from Fitzcarraldo Editions.]
[Read at the end of November 2023, in Florence.]

bell hooks | All About Love
bell hooks | All About Love

There was much that I outright hated about this book.  I hated the cringingly clichéd and hackneyed thinking — the pablum, the platitudes and the screaming predictability.  I hated the entirely unrigorous, uninspiring, mediocre feel of the writing (and the careless feel of the editing to boot).

I hated that in chapter after chapter, across some two-hundred pages, hooks is able to spotlight, support, and make space for the work of over a dozen other psychologists, writers and thinkers, but all of them are white, and almost all of them are white men.  I hated that the only exceptions to this trend come far too late or are far too paltry — a couple of mentions of Martin Luther King Jr. (which shouldn’t even count, given it’s him), one of Baldwin, and three quick, almost dumped-in lines from Thich Nhat Hanh.  I hated that even when talking about the importance of the sensual and of living sensually, hooks sidesteps the most glaringly obvious thinker that comes to mind in this context (hello Audre Lorde, hello “Uses of the Erotic”), and instead goes out of her way to quote Adrienne Rich.  (And I hate how clearly it feels like this was not a coincidence — because if hooks was reading Rich from those years, she totally knew she was leaving Lorde out.)

But maybe most of all, I hate that I hated so much of a book by someone who’s life, work, and legacy is so incredibly foundational to intersectional feminism, and to so much of what is so important to me.  This is bell hooks goddamnit.  I hate that I feel this way about a book by bell hooks.

And so, despite all that, I will tell you about some good parts.

Like the one and only time she does quote a line from a fellow woman of color (though it’s from a novel, and it’s only in passing...):

In Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters, wise older women who are healers are called in to assist the young woman who has attempted suicide, and they tell her: “Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, ’cause wholeness is no trifling matter—a lot of weight when you are well.”

Like when, some six pages from the very end, she speaks of woundedness:

We need to speak [...] our pain courageously in order to recover.  Addressing woundedness is not about blaming others; however, it does allow individuals who have been, and are, hurt to insist on accountability and responsibility both from themselves and from those who were the agents of their suffering as well as those who bore witness.  Constructive confrontation aids our healing.

Even here, I was unhappy with the writing, and so I revised it just a little, for myself:

We need to speak our pain courageously in order to recover.  Addressing woundedness is not about blaming others.  Addressing woundedness is about allowing those of us who have been hurt to insist on accountability and responsibility, both from ourselves and from others — those others who were the agents of our suffering, as well as those others who bore witness.

(You hear that, fam?  I called it naming the elephants in the room.  She calls it addressing woundedness.  Either way, it’s your call now.)


Like the idea — the truth — of love as a verb and not a noun.  A verb that yokes its action to intention.

(I think of the concept of niyyah in Muslim prayer, ritual, and consciousness.  But I think too, of the difference between intention and impact...)


And speaking of families, wounds, and truths...  You know that memified tweet that makes the rounds every once in a while?  The one with a picture of a page from a bell hooks book, in which we learn that love and abuse cannot coexist?

Yeah, that one.

That’s from this book.

[Acquired in early November 2023, from Feltrinelli in Piazza Repubblica.]
[Read in the second half of November 2023, in Florence.]

Elaine Castillo | How to Read Now
Elaine Castillo | How to Read Now

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kathy Chow has captured the nagging, gnawing, tip-of-the-tongue nub of what’s ever-so-slightly not-quite-right with this book.  But there is also much that is right.  And maybe not just right, but foot-stompingly, hand-clappingly, sing-it-girl so.  Like pretty much every line of “Reading Teaches Us Empathy, and Other Fictions”—an essay I would like to xerox in the dozens, to slip under the doors of all my well-meaning white readerly friends.  (Maybe some of the not-so-well-meaning ones too...)

And like the essay on Berger – “Reality Is All We Have to Love” – such a many-paned window of looking into and out from Berger’s worlds.

(I read this book right after Angela Davis, below, and so it felt especially fun to come upon Castillo noting here, how Berger gave half of his 1972 Booker Prize winnings to the Black Panthers.  I knew I loved that man.  I knew it.)

Like the essay on representation and realness in Asian film, from Monsoon Wedding and Wong Kar-wai, through the idea that empowerment is not the same thing as emancipation, all the way to the difference between the art we need and the art we’ve been delegated.

And speaking of singing, like this:

When I think about reading and writing, I necessarily also think about silences, erasures, oblivions and misremembrances, pockets of inarticulacy; things that are nameless in me, which might touch or be touched by things that are nameless in others.

Or like this:

When I talk about reading, I don’t just mean books. [...] At heart, reading has never just been the province of books, or the literate. [...] Books, as world-encompassing as they are, aren’t the destination; they’re a waypoint.  Reading doesn’t bring us to books—books bring us to reading.  They’re one of the places we go to help us become readers in the world.


When I talk about how to read now, I’m not just talking about how to read books now; I’m talking about how to read our world now.  How to read films, TV shows, our history, each other.  How to dismantle the forms of interpretation we’ve inherited; how those ways of interpreting are everywhere and unseen.

Did you hear that?  Listen again:

Reading doesn’t bring us to books—books bring us to reading.  They’re one of the places we go to help us become readers in the world.

I’m talking about how to read our world now.

I think of Edward Said—gone twenty years this month—and the thing Salman Rushdie once said about him (which is probably the only time you will ever find me speaking admiringly of anything Salman Rushdie has said, but that’s another story for another time...).  He said of Said (!), that he reads the world as closely as he reads books.

The first time I read that, I thought: Yes.  That is what I want to do.  That is what I’m trying to do.

Some days I think, additionally: That is why I’m so often exhausted.

[Acquired in June of 2023.]
[Read in July 2023, in Florence.]

Angela Y. Davis | An Autobiography
Angela Y. Davis | An Autobiography

Did you know that Angela Davis’s life spans from the likes of Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse on one side, to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison on the other?  (And everyone from Ronald Reagan to Malcolm X and Fidel Castro in between?)  Listen, you still have her here.  You don’t even deserve her—especially those of you who love to pray only at the altars of those Black activists and intellectuals who are male, dead (and therefore harmless), or (preferably) both.  But you have her and we have her and she is still — this great sky of a life — here.


This is the 2021 reprint, of course (she wrote the book in 1974, when she was all of twenty-eight...), and the new preface alone feels like a primer on everything to be thinking about, right now.

Today, as we witness the perilous repercussions of neoliberal individualism, I am more convinced than ever that we need to engage in relentless critique of our centering of the individual.

That bit in particular marks one of the two first things I love about Angela Davis—in this book especially.  Cioè, that she takes every single opportunity she gets, to point out that it is not about the individual—even/especially, when the individual is her.

The other first thing that I love about Angela Davis — always and everywhere — is that she gets the importance of collective movement that is truly, globally inclusive.  More than any Black leader I know, she gets that this, all of this, is not just about African Americans, or even Black people.  That it is not just racism, and it is not just the US.  Instead, she understands that this is about racism and capitalism and colonialism and carceral systems and patriarchy and neoliberalism—and all of their intersecting effects on Black and Indigenous peoples and people of color, from Pasadena to Palestine—and beyond.

She gets that if we are to have a chance, any chance at all...  Then we need to be in this, together.


I’d always kind of wondered why she was and is so different in this, from so many Black activists and thinkers.  And as it turns out, the reason hits closer to home than I could have imagined...  As Davis explains in the third part of the book, when she accepted her scholarship to study at Brandeis, she hadn’t realized that she would be one of exactly three Black freshmen in the entire university:

[In] the artificial surroundings of an isolated, virtually all-white college campus […] I felt alienated, angry, alone and would have left the campus if I had had the courage and had known where to go.

Eventually, she was drawn toward the people with whom I felt I had most in common—the foreign students:

I became friends with an Indian man, who was very gentle and had a keen sense of what was happening around us.  It was my friendship with Lalit more than anything else, I suppose, that helped me understand concretely the interconnectedness of the freedom struggles of peoples throughout the world.

I think of Audre Lorde and her differences:

[We] have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change.  Without community there is no liberation...

And I think of Lorde saying, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.


And look...  I said there were two things I loved about her—have loved a long time. But now, at least three:

Nothing in the world made me angrier than inaction, than silence.  The refusal or inability to do something, say something when a thing needed doing or saying, was unbearable.  The watchers, the head-shakers, the back-turners made my skin prickle.

Of course I would love that.

[[Acquired some time in April or May of 2023, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in June 2023 while on vacation in Puglia... (That beach at Peschici!)]

Lydia Davis | Essays One
Lydia Davis | Essays One

There are some five-hundred pages here of a writer’s mind at work, at play, and in process.  And sure, there are a couple of bumps...  (For example I had to abandon the piece on Joseph Cornell—despite how I feel about Joseph Cornell; for example it’s hard not to notice how white, male, and Eurocentric her tastes are; and for example some Peter f*cking Handke...)  But otherwise and in general, most of these pieces — like the four delicious essays on “Forms and Influences,” like the reading of Rae Armantrout in surround sound, like that spectacular ride with Alan Cote, and like the tender, roving, brave and gauzy meander through memory and missing in “Remember the Van Wagenens” (shades too, of Natalia Ginzburg in Family Lexicon) — most of them felt to me like microcosmically crafted nonchalances that just keep on giving.

Essays like puzzle rings and essays like pearls.  Essays like the insides of clocks.

Essays you want to read and re-read, and sometimes even, in a way, re-write.  I’m thinking in this sense, of that idea of Nikki Giovanni’s—that writing is a conversation with reading; a dialogue with thinking.  And I’m thinking especially, of Davis’s essay on the “Fragmentary or Unfinished,” in which she explores ideas of wholeness, completion, incompletion, order, the writer’s notebook—and of course, of the fragment as form.

For example in the case of Barthes, she says, a fragment is a “brief burst” or a “beginning.”  And so I think instantly, of Edward Said:

Beginning is not only a kind of action.  It is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness.

Davis goes on to describe how Barthes loves these beginnings – loves to write them or rather to find them, as he calls it – and so he tends to multiply this pleasure...  That is why he writes fragments: so many fragments, so many beginnings, so many pleasures (but he doesn’t like the ends: the risk of the rhetorical clausule is too great: the fear of not being able to resist the last word)...

And I can’t help thinking – suddenly, after all these years – about that other word for beginning...  Those incipits that Calvino so loved, in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler — the ones that seem to open the passage from one world to the other, from the time and space of here and now to the time and space of the written word:

I feel the thrill of a beginning that can be followed by multiple developments, inexhaustibly...

From here I feel taken, almost transported, to that moment in To the Lighthouse, when Woolf is speaking so clearly through Lily Briscoe (a painter and not a writer, it’s true, but she was talking about writing too, you know she was talking about writing too...), about making that first mark:

...she took her hand and raised her brush.  For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air.  Where to begin?—that was the question at what point to make the first mark?  One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions.


I come back to Davis, and to a more general definition she offers, for the fragment:

What I finally see that I mean when I think of the fragment, old or new—is a text that works with silence, ellipsis, abbreviation, suggesting that something is missing, but that has the effect of a complete experience.

And I think as I always do, of Kimiko Hahn:

It is lovely when a fragment can be a whole.  Not just suggest entirety.

And of Calvino again, in Traveler:

At times a title is enough to kindle in me the desire for a book that perhaps does not exist.  At times it is the incipit of the book, the first sentences...  In other words: if you need little to set the imagination going, I require even less...

(The promise, he adds, is enough.)


I think of the poet Heather McHugh in Broken English, and all the ways we conjure up what isn’t:

We can’t help, as readers (or as spectators, for that matter—the science of moving pictures was predicated on this fact) putting together the separate frames into a coherent or continuous experience. [...] A reader readied by practice with broken texts will find sweet patterns in the drift...  patterns of line and circle, current and recurrency...

I think of Sappho in the eyes of Anne Carson, and of the two Emilies too: Dickinson in the eyes of Eula Biss, and Brontë in the eyes of Mary Ruefle.  (And from Ruefle suddenly I remember — how could I have forgotten? — even erasure is about fragments and fragmentation: about silence and ellipsis, about something missing that has the effect of a complete experience...)

Just a page or two later, it feels like Davis comes around to this place, where Hahn and McHugh and Calvino and Carson and all the others are hanging out—a little party of all the quiet parts:

We can contemplate a Mayan ruin in the jungle, and consider it a whole thing, though it is only a fragment of something that was once whole.  In our experience, it is a whole, though a Mayan who lived at the time when the entire temple was there as originally built, and who used it, would see it now as broken.  It is a whole for us because it is all we have experienced of it, and because it yields us a complete experience.  While we recognize that it is a ruin, and broken, for us nothing is missing.


I think of that moment I have always loved in Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams (ha—you didn’t expect him at this party, did you?):

I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century.  I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century.  “So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.

“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.

“But it’s burnt down?”



“Many times.”

“And rebuilt.”

“Of course.  It is an important and historic building.”

“With completely new materials.”

“But of course.  It was burnt down.”

“So how can it be the same building?”

“It is always the same building.”


I come back to Davis:

To work deliberately in the form of the fragment can be seen as stopping or appearing to stop a work closer, in the process, to what Blanchot would call the origin of writing, the center rather than the sphere.

(Those beginnings again.  Those incipits...)

Elsewhere and along these lines, she remembers a writer suggesting that there were many works that Sartre did not finish because he wrote for the pleasure of writing, not for the satisfaction of reaching conclusions.

I think of Biss again on Dickinson:

If she didn’t want to publish her poetry, why did she keep writing?

Why indeed.

[Acquired in November 2022.]
[Read on and off for some six months, and finally finished in July 2023.]

Naomi Shihab Nye | Everything Comes Next
Naomi Shihab Nye | Everything Comes Next

(I have not been telling you all this time, about the books of poetry.  But I decided finally, because this will all be for me too some day — for me mostly, I suspect — that I need them here.)

For that first story, about that first poem:

You could take it to school and give it to your first-grade teacher, who didn’t like you.  Pretend it was a present.  She would hang it on the bulletin board and weeks later, far from that trip, a girl in school who was bigger than you would pause to say, “Did you write that poem?”

“Ho!”  Yes, I almost forgot.”

She smiled.  “I read it—and I know what you mean,” skipping off to join her friends at the monkey bars.

She knew what I meant.  That was something.  That was a wing to fly on all the way home, or for the rest of a life.

For this too, from around those early days:

If you knew how to read, you could never be lonely.


For “Little Boys Running on the Dock” — all four lines of it, small and spare and carefree — into whose margins I have written, remembering what Nye has said elsewhere:

You are living in a poem.

(Today I go back to the find that elsewhere, in a podcast conversation between Nye and Krista Tippett: ...and every classroom, I would just write on the board, “You are living in a poem.” [...] I found the students very intrigued by discussing that.  “What do you mean, we’re living in a poem?”  Or, “When? All the time, or just when someone talks about poetry?”  And I’d say, “No; when you think, when you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another — that’s a poem.  That’s what a poem does.”)

For “The Art of Disappearing”—an old, familiar friend by now, soft-edged with all the days I have lived inside it (decide what to do with your time...).

And for “If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit”—a new friend already.  A lifesaver maybe, already:

you take it off
of course you take it off
it doesn’t worry you
it isn’t your shoe


For that moment all those years ago when they were children, that small and telescoping tunnel of a moment, with her brother:

I missed him terribly,
though I could hear his steady breath
and we had such long and separate lives

For the idea of a story without corners.


And for this, these days.  All these days:

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.

And this too:

Where we live in the world
is never one place.

Never one time, either.

[Acquired in late January 2023.]
[Read on and off and by my bedside, from January through to June 2023.]

Julie Marie Wade | Fugue: An Aural History
Julie Marie Wade | Fugue: An Aural History

I ordered this book because I’d signed up (via a friend and fellow lover of the liminal — thank you Freesia McKee!) for a craft talk at the Poets Corner, on hybrid and adopted forms, and I had wanted to know more about this person I would be spending an evening with...  The talk was on Sunday and the book arrived on Saturday and by Sunday afternoon I had read it twice over, notes in the margins and all.  Fleeting and deep like when you wait just a little for something you have wanted a lot.  Or maybe, like a split-second of happening-time that you look back on later, through a long dark tunnel of remembering-time.  This book felt like a book to begin the summer with.

There is the moment with the otolaryngologist whose name was Morse.  There is all that listening.  Listening as reading (I was not used to big books that spoke softly...) and listening as living (Of course they tended rich, interior lives...).  And listening as knowing.

But isn’t a sensor’s job to sense?

There are the moments of and with and from John Cage.  Like flashes of quietly conceptual lightning, like a negative of a photograph of lightning blown up large.  Like lightning under water.

He refused to parse the world into “music” and “not music.”

(And the uncanny echoes too, for having just finished Elif Batuman’s Either / Or: To look at the cover of Wade’s book and hear Selin’s voice, telling of twelve and twenty-four tones...  To come upon Cage again and again.  I think of refrains and leitmotifs.  I think of anaphoras and ostinatos.  I think of Carly Simon, coming around again.)

There is the game she plays between the book’s sections—so much like the game I play between my days.  What do I mean?  Nights when I cannot sleep...  (Because I have them now, I am that person...)  Nights when I cannot sleep, and I need to get the thoughts to stop roaring, I play a game with words.  I start at A and it’s usually abracadabra, but from there to B and C and D, I try to think, (though not for too long, because that too is part of it...), of the strangest and most surprising and evocative word I can.  Strange and surprising when set against the one that came before.  Evocative in its reaching for the one that must come after. Evocative then, towards another surprise. And so, from abracadabra to baskerville to clamorous to disincentivize. From abracadabra to brevity to claptrap to dread.  Some nights it does the trick, this game of mine.  So of course I call it, “Abracadabra.”

I keep wondering if one of my parents will step out onto the deck, shading their eyes from the late winter sun.  But even if they are watching, they will not see me.  This has been true for some time.  It wouldn’t matter if I waved or called their names.  And besides, certain squalls have quieted now.

(Some other nights, not so much.)

[Acquired on Saturday 3rd June 2023.]
[Read in a single, soft and quiet stretch, through the morning of Sunday the 4th of June.]

Elif Batuman | Either / Or
Elif Batuman | Either/Or

What I want to remember about reading this book:

That the first two thirds pretty much annoyed the heck out of me, for much the same reason and much the same way as The Golden Notebook...  (And here I pause to consider how that might work, too, like a kind of compliment...)  Except of course, I could cut Selin, Batuman’s heroine, a lot more slack for letting men (by which I mean a particular man, and then another particular man after that, but also men more generally...) take up so much of her inner world of space and time and thinking.  Why?  Because you don’t walk into the world of a nineteen-year-old girl on a campus in Bill Clinton’s America expecting feminism in quite the way you walk into the world of Anna Wulf and company.  Not quite.


That the final third, on the other hand, was not only not annoying, but actually kind of delightful.  And absolutely, consistently, intelligent and funny and wise.  (There are funny bits in the rest of the book too, but they are few and far between, offering little consolation for my many moments of readerly eye-rolling.  As Selin herself says at one point: I had no patience for such a person.)


That there is a kind of literary novel I do not like, and it is written by the likes of Flaubert, Garcia Marquez, Nabokov, Pamuk, and (maybe, based at least on this first taste...), Elif Batuman.  Though again, this is more a problem in the first two thirds of the book, and not the last...  I know, I know.  What can I say?  Everything gets better once Selin decides to stop obsessing about men / a man, and get curious about her own life, mind, body, and being.

So, less of this:

But it was impossible to imagine an aesthetic life, or any life, without falling in love. (In the margins of which I have written, “WTF?  No.”)

And more of this:

The more I thought about it, the less I understood why the duration of my current condition—this indignity and stuckness, the feeling of being somehow tied to Ivan—should depend on my ability to find some doofus who would tell me I was special.  I already knew I was special.  So what did I need the doofus for?


That it was kind of cool to read about a young brown woman sitting, as a sophomore, in front of a screen that was very likely a Pine client screen, in a computer lab at a prestigious East Coast university, in the fall of 1996.  Because in the fall of 1996, yours truly was exactly that person.  (And I too, remember the guiltily wicked thrill of using that “finger” command to look up the likes of Mike Montero and maybe all two of the other guys I was even remotely interested in—“all two” because, well, that was life when you were a CompSci major...)


And finally, that she asks questions.  Even in those crappy first two thirds of the book.  And if there is any way to say this is a book worth reading, it is for that—the asking always, of questions:

Why did religion have its own department, instead of going into philosophy or anthropology?  What made something a religion and not a philosophy?  Why was the history of non-industrial people in anthropology and not in history?

Where did you draw the line between trying to make a particular person fall in love with you and give you money, and trying to get money out of the world more generally?

What was it about America in particular that seemed to make one’s life unaesthetic?

It was one of my core beliefs that real worth was independent of what some European or American people happened to have heard of.  And yet . . . what was value, if it wasn’t conferred by some people?  A daunting thought: How would I eventually root out from my mind all the beliefs that I hated?

(There’s one other question she asks.  But it’s a question that feels so important, I may have to make a whole essay around it...  In the meantime, if you know me well and if you’ve read the book — especially the notes at the end — you’ll know it.  You’ll know.)

[Acquired on 27 May 2023, from Todo Modo.]
[Finished on 31 May 2023, in Firenze.]

[... ..... there were books in this space of time... some day / maybe, i’ll get to them ..... ...]
Eula Biss | Having and Being Had
Eula Biss | Having and Being Had

There’s a thread that runs through all of Eula Biss’s thinking—through No Man’s Land and through Immunity, through that famous essay on White Debt, and through this latest book too—and more than any other quality I suspect it is the reason I will always want to read what she writes.

It’s a two-ply thread, and by this I mean that Biss is (firstly) always asking, and (secondly) always honest in the answering.  (And the failing too, to answer...)

I mean an honesty far past any writer I know (except perhaps Toi Derricotte in The Black Notebooks, and Claudia Rankine in pretty much everything...).  And certainly past any white writer (or white anyone, for that matter...), that I know.

If you want to know what I mean — for this book in particular — you can hear a little of it in this twelve-minute interview that Biss did with Wisconsin Public Radio.  Or you can check out a longer, text-based interview she did with The Rumpus.  One or both of those interviews may turn some of you off, because this is not a book for those of us who want to feel comfortable with the choices we make (and more importantly, the choices we evade making...) in our lives.

Meaning, the lies we want to believe tell us something about ourselves.

I think, tangentially, of a piece I re-read recently, on Barbara Ehrenreich:

Her humor and projection of personal vulnerability were particularly deft techniques for asking the reader to see their own position... [...] Following her, you arrive without quite meaning to in a situation where you must contemplate your own moral balance sheet... [...] You cannot [read her] without imagining the versions of such relationships in which you are enmeshed, as exploited or exploiter, and the justifications and accommodations you have negotiated to make these relationships morally workable for yourself.

So this is a book too, that requires all that.

In return though, there are some gifts.

Like the story behind the Landlord’s Game—even better and more interesting (because more anti-capitalist, more feminist, and more progressive) than the meme/post you’ve already seen.

Like the “aha” moment — for both Biss and for you — of learning that the protestant (work) ethic was never about work being, in and of itself, good, but instead about the moralizing of work as a way to accumulate wealth, as proof that you were in God’s favor. In other words, that you were good and therefore — deservingly and in consequence — rich and successful.

We don’t have to privilege accumulation over distribution.  But that is the rule that governs our everyday lives—our work and our play.

Why?  Because capitalism couldn’t really take hold until people became convinced, one way or another, to make more money than they needed:

That would seem an easy sell today, but it wasn’t in seventeenth-century England, when many commoners still earned money only occasionally, lived mostly by subsistence, and felt that they had enough, much to the frustration of the landowners who wanted them to do steady work for wages.

And like this:

When we bought the house after years of looking, I was no longer convinced that I wanted a house.  The money in our savings account was not money, in my mind, it was time.  All those dollars were hours banked, to be spent on writing, not working.  It seemed a waste to spend time on property.

It does, doesn’t it?


Early in the book she chats with her Black neighbor, a retired postal worker and saxophone player who still practices every day, even though his health is too poor now for him to perform.  He tells her about attending the same elementary school my son attends, and of being beaten on the playground.  He tells her of the rich owner of a mansion that was on his postal route, who demanded that he wade through deep snow to deliver packages to the service entrance at the back of the house.  He tells her that he couldn’t, in those days, risk a conversation with a woman like me.  He had to keep his head down when he passed a white woman on the sidewalk, he said, and just respond, Yes, ma’am, if she spoke to him.

I think of Andrew’s aunt, reminiscing to us in a recent email about the Los Angeles of her father’s youth — from the 1920s to the 1950s...  It was, as she put it, “the era where men were Men,” but also “a time and place [...] where all races and nationalities went to school together and were friends.”

There is the possibility of course, that Aunt B. was speaking here, in her father’s voice.  That she herself does not believe in that picture, or that she understands anyway — if only vaguely — that it is not quite real.  That it is maybe even, a little problematic.

There is that possibility, of course.


In writing this, I wound up re-reading every word of Having, all over again.  Maybe this is also, just a little bit, because the first time I read it was while waiting some seven hours outside the Questura di Firenze, on foot and in the cold, along with hundreds of others from the global majority–what always feels, in those moments to me, like my global majority: my people, our bodies, us.  All of us waiting, hours and hours of waiting, far longer really, than we can afford, to be let in.

But what has that to do with any of this?

I ponder the question as I page through the notes at the end of the book, where Biss reflects on the process of writing it — its journey and hers.  (She does this in all her books, and it’s kind of the best part...)  I pause at a passage I have marked:

My pursuit of the meaning of capitalism in this book was motivated in part by the whiteness of the whale.  Ever since the term white people was first used in the late seventeenth century, [...] that distinction has served to exclude other people from security, ownership, and profit from their own work.  Where indentured servants from England and Africa once worked side by side and earned their freedom in this country with their work, the legal category “white people” allowed some servants to continue to earn their freedom, while others were denied that freedom.

What indeed.

[Acquired in late November 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read mostly in line at the Questura di Firenze, in late January 2022.]

Lewis Hyde | The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World
Lewis Hyde | The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

I tried very hard to read this back when I first bought it — it was August of 2015, and the summer of my master’s thesis — but I kept getting stuck.  Maybe it wasn’t the right time.  Maybe I needed to wait seven years, like an itch, till 2022.  That was when I began Eula Biss’s Having And Being Had (as you can see above), and noticed how often she was citing and invoking Hyde’s work.  And so I hit “pause” on Biss, and went back to try once more.  This time, a charm.  This time, so much that resonated.  As if all these years while I hadn’t been reading this book, it had been reading me.

For example, there is this:

For some years now I myself have tried to make my way as a poet, a translator, and a sort of “scholar without institution.”  Invariably the money question comes up; labors such as mine are notoriously non-remunerative, and the landlord is not interested in your book of translations the day the rent falls due.  A necessary corollary seems to follow the proposition that the work of art is a gift: there is nothing in the labor of art itself that will automatically make it pay.  Quite the opposite in fact. [...] [Every] modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange.

I think of the slowly brightening fire of interest/obsession I have been nursing these past years, for what I have been calling a kind of opposite of transactionalism.  That time when I decided to babysit Josephine, my murky but nevertheless compelling sense — I could not articulate all of it perfectly, but I was sure like when you are sure of a person by their voice — that this was not about doing someone a favor in order to feel like I could one day ask them the same, this was not because I loved these people (though I did love them, so much for how that turned out...), and this was not because of simple altruism.  This was for no reason—and that was exactly the reason.  That was exactly why it felt like something I wanted, maybe even needed, to do.

I think too, of the quiet arguments I have been having in my head these days, with a friend who insists that the meaning of life lies in “bringing value to this earth” and that he needs to “jack up my will power” and get as much as possible “done” to “make sure hard work actually rewards.”  I think of how I have been wanting to send him that line of Bertrand Russell’s:

The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

I think of another friend who has worked several years now in the world of adaptive optics for astronomical telescopes.  This woman is one of the smartest people I know, and she is literally helping to make the world clearer, but she wonders sometimes if she should be doing something that’s “useful...”

I think about what this kind of internalized capitalism means — has meant already for a long time now — for anyone who is old or unwell or unable to bring “value to this earth” or be “useful” in the ways we most often define or measure all this value and use...  I think of that story from Jenny Odell’s introduction to How to Do Nothing, about “The Useless Tree”:

The story is about a carpenter who sees a tree [...] of impressive size and age.  But the carpenter passes it right by, declaring it a “worthless tree” that has only gotten to be this old because its gnarled branches would not be good for timber.  Soon afterward, the tree appears to him in a dream and asks, “Are you comparing me with those useful trees?”  The tree points out to him that fruit trees and timber trees are regularly ravaged.  Meanwhile, uselessness has been this tree’s strategy: “This is of great use to me.  If I had been of some use, would I ever have grown this large?”  The tree balks at the distinction between usefulness and worth, made by a man who only sees trees as potential timber...


Back in Hyde and speaking again, of that whatever-it-is that I love, that is the opposite of transactionalism:

In commodity exchange it’s as if the buyer and seller were both in plastic bags; there’s none of the contact of gift exchange.  There is neither motion or emotion because the whole point is to keep the balance, to make sure the exchange itself doesn’t consume anything or involve one person with another.

Do you see?  Do you see what I mean about the complete opposite then, of that kind of exchange?  Because what if the point of everything, of all this giving and taking, is precisely the opposite...?  What if the point is to become a little entangled with each other, and to “owe” (though I do not like that word...) — to owe others and to be owed in ways we cannot easily (or maybe ever) “settle” or “square away.”

Elsewhere, Hyde calls this an opening of oneself to interdependence...  Via Claude Lévi-Strauss, he tells of a little ritual in restaurants in the south of France:

The patrons sit at a long communal table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine.  Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbor’s.  And his neighbor will return the gesture, filling the first man’s empty glass.  In an economic sense nothing has happened.  No one has any more wine than he did to begin with.  But society has appeared where there was none before.

I think of “The Black Sheep” by Calvino — the little story about the town where everyone is a thief:

So everybody lived happily together, nobody lost out, since each stole from the other, and that other from another again, and so on and on until you got to a last person who stole from the first.

Thus life went on smoothly, nobody was rich and nobody was poor.

Or, as Lévi-Strauss put it:

From an economic viewpoint, no one has gained and no one has lost.  But the point is that there is much more in the exchange itself than in the things exchanged.


There is more of course.  There is the idea that identity is neither “yours” nor “mine,” but comes of a communion with the world.  There is the idea that whatever we treat as living begins to take on life.  But there is death too, as that which focuses life, and deepens it—such that the presence of death allows for a wider emotional life than we might otherwise have.  There is the idea of the prophetic perfect.

There is that wild and jaw-dropping chapter on usury.  Not only for all the ways in which the word itself has slithered in and out of time, but also (and holy moly!—in many of the margins I have scrawled “OMFG!”), for the truth of Luther and all the ways in which he is responsible for the hell — of capitalism and private property, of market triumphalism and scarcity economics, and of predatory banking and one-percenters — that we live in now.


There is the idea (the truth, I would argue...) that charity is not a gift, but rather a way of negotiating the boundary of class:

The recipient of a gift should, sooner or later, be able to give it away again.  If the gift does not really raise him to the level of the group, then it’s just a decoy, providing him his daily bread while across town someone is buying up the bakery.

At its worst, it is the “tyranny of gift,” which uses the bonding power of generosity to manipulate people.


There is the story of Allen Ginsburg meeting an eighty-two-year-old Ezra Pound, and what it might make of our perennial problem with beautiful art by fucked-up people—how a light suddenly fell from a window no one had noticed:

The story of our poetry need not be finished in one man’s life.


And through it all — maybe most of all — there is the idea that we come alive when we give away what has been received, and that the gift that is not used will be lost, while the one that is passed along remains abundant.

I think of a friend and fellow writer who pooh-poohed blogs for years and years.  “No self-respecting writer should be giving away her writing for free like that,” she would snort.  (To be fair, she changed her mind eventually, perhaps in part because she started reading a certain blog that you too, may know of...)

I think of Emily Dickinson and the way she gave — and only gave — her poems.

And I think of a line I love in Tender Buttons by Stein—a line that always and at the same time, both settles in and floats up cloudlike, an invitation to be somewhere other than where we are:

Giving it away, not giving it away, is there any difference.

[Acquired in August 2015 (!), in Santa Marinella.]
[Started then, abandoned, started again and finished finally in January 2022, in Florence.]

Sigrid Nunez | What Are You Going Through
Sigrid Nunez | What Are You Going Through

I had loved The Last of her Kind.  And The Friend — oh, The Friend!  The Friend was one of those books I read in almost a single sitting, and then when I was finished, I started right back over at the beginning.  I loved, loved, loved The Friend.

But this book of Nunez’s—how to explain what didn’t work?  It felt brittle to me.  Like something made for the wrong reasons, or with something small and crucial — something that would have been generous — held back.  For all its apparent worldliness, being in this book felt like being in a very beautifully appointed, warm and soft-furnished, book- and art-filled... bunker.  I am thinking of the word insular, or anyway insulated.  Of isolated, and island, and pod.

But as I sit here writing this, more than a year after reading this book — another year of these years we have been having — and here in the week in which my father’s best and closest, most precious friend has just died...  In all that, there is this:

Is something wrong? asked the trainer.

I shook my head, but then immediately blurted that a friend of mine was dying.

I’m sorry, he said.  Is there anything I can do?  Said it reflexively, as people always do, this formula that nobody really wants to hear, that comforts nobody.  But it was not his fault that our language has been hollowed out, coarsened, and bled dry, leaving us always stupid and tongue-tied before emotion.  A high school teacher once made us read Henry James’s famous letter to his grief-stricken friend Grace Norton, held up since its publication as a sublime example of sympathy and understanding.  Even he begins by saying, “I hardly know what to say.”

I go looking and I find that letter of Henry James’s, and I think about my father’s friend who just died, and about his family.  On Friday I spoke to his daughter, who had been as close to my father as I was to hers, and it was like looking into a mirror made of time and memory and above all, of wordlessness.  And so I said, “Zeena, I don’t know.  I never know what to say, except that I don’t know what to say...”

And she said, “You know.  You know what this like.”

And I got so quiet she had to ask if I could hear her.  But I could hear her just fine.

So anyway.  There’s that.

[Acquired in late November 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read mostly through early December, in Florence.]

Mira Jacob | Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
Mira Jacob | Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations

If “best” were a good-enough word, this was the best book I read in 2021.  But “best” feels woefully lacking in the layers and planes of meaning that I would need.  Like if you lived your whole life thinking red was what a fire-engine was, and then someone pressed into your hands a pomegranate, a glass of wine, and a knife.


Not everyone needs this book.  If you are a woman of color whose world contains at least one white person you care for — whether as a spouse or a lover or a friend or a family member — then you need this book.

“Paula told me that you thought that maybe some of my friends thought you were the help at the party.”

“Some of your friends thought I was the help at the party.”

“Are you sure? I just can’t imagine anyone actually doing that.”

Sometimes, you go along with it and pretend nothing happened.  Sometimes, you hold your breath until the feeling of wanting to be believed passes.  Sometimes, you weigh explaining against staying quiet and know they’re both just different kinds of heavy.  Sometimes, when it’s your mother-in-law — a woman you started calling mom the day you got engaged because you admired the ferocity with which she loved her children, and maybe even wanted some of it for yourself — you look ahead and see all the years of birthdays and graduations and weddings that will be shadowed by things she can’t imagine about your life.  Sometimes, you can’t hold your breath long enough.

(And you will know it, because this book will crack open inside you with recognition and rage and relief — a series of big and little, luminous explosions of what has been burning mostly quietly, anyway and for a while.)


And if you are a white person whose world contains at least one woman of color you care for — whether as a spouse or a lover or a friend or a family member — then you too, need this book.

I can’t even protect you from the simple fact that sometimes, the people who love us will choose a world that doesn’t.

(But you.  You might not know it.  Not while you’re reading, or for a little while after, or even a long time after.  It’s that woman of color you care for—she knows it.)

[Acquired in November 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read like lightning over a weekend, in Florence.]

Jhumpa Lahiri | Whereabouts
Jhumpa Lahiri | Whereabouts

How to say this any way but straight?  This was one of the most unremarkable books I have read in a long time.  In itself, it made me think of very little.  But as itself, it made me think of some things I have learned over many years of loving (some kinds of) conceptual writing.  For example, the difference between centering a process because it makes for art—that is interesting or anyway meaningful to others...  And centering a process because it makes for a process—that is interesting and meaningful to the artist.

Unlike some folks, I don’t think there’s anything problematic or wrong with Lahiri deciding to write her books in a language that isn’t “hers” (whatever that means...), any more than anyone ever thought it problematic for Beckett and Conrad and Nabokov and Simic and a host of white men across the literary canon to do pretty much exactly the same thing...  I love that Lahiri is experimenting with what it means to write in a kind of linguistic drag (that too—as a woman, a brown woman, and at a kind of second or even third level of remove...), and I love that it leads to all sorts of questions—of language as thought, of thought as self, and of both thought and self, as performance.

But I’m not so sure (given this particular book anyway...), that the fruits of her experiments are so very interesting, illuminating, and compelling in their own right.  Or at least, I’m not so sure they are the most interesting, illuminating, and compelling part of the experiments...  Among other things, I’m thinking of Dorothea Lasky, and the poet-friend she meets one day, in Poetry is Not a Project:

[He] told me that he was working on a project where his goal was to go to the local art museum every day for a month and write a poem about a different piece of art each day.  I told him I thought that was nice, because I thought it was.  I like when people write poems about art.  I like the idea of poetry being alive in museums.

Months after our meeting, I went to see my acquaintance give a poetry reading.  He was reading from his museum project and I was interested in hearing his poems, especially because I knew the museum he had written them in and liked a lot of the art there.  Before he started reading, he read an essay he wrote about his project.  His logic was interesting.  Then he read his poems.  I did not like them.  After the reading, people talked to him about his project and in general, most people liked the idea behind it, as did I.  No one talked to him about his poems.  His poems were not important to his project.  His project was important to his project.  Everything that mattered was in the idea.

But perhaps I should give you something—one thing.  I page through the book.  Find at last, a single place in which I have underlined some text.  Two lines:

What did I do?  I read books and studied.  I listened to my parents and did what they asked me to.  Even though, in the end, I never made them happy.

[Acquired in October 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read on and off (with difficulty...) through October and November 2021, in Florence.]

Jeanette Winterson | Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Jeanette Winterson | Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

I don’t know that I loved this one.  I may not even have liked it.  What I did like though, is that this felt all the way through like a book that does not care — does not even know — how books are supposed to behave.  How they should speak and how they should dress and who they should walk with.  I liked that.

And of course, there were some bits.  Like this, on stories:

Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently.  Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved.  I don’t believe them.  The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots.  It’s all there but hard to find the beginning and impossible to fathom the end.  The best you can do is admire the cat’s cradle, and maybe knot it up a bit more.

I think of Jia Tolentino, in a book I read just before this one:

I wish I had known [...] that the story didn’t need to be clean, and it didn’t need to be satisfying; that in fact, it would never be clean or satisfying, and once I realized that, I would be able to see what was true...  Because a well-practiced, conclusive narrative is usually a dubious one...

And I think too, of Ada Limón in an essay at Lit Hub: There is no such thing as a whole story.  (Just after she adds, I love that, because it is true.)


And like this bit, still with stories:

Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make of them what we will.  It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time.

I think of what some poetry can do.  A way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained.

I think of Diane di Prima, in “Rant”: the ultimate claustrophobia is “it all adds up”.


Like this bit, about death: I thought about the dog and was suddenly very sad; sad for her death, for my death, for all the inevitable dying that comes with change.

Except, I think of Diane Seuss, in a recent interview for the New York Review of Books: I knew plums well enough to understand that without death, there is no juice.

...and I think too, of Danez Smith in “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense”: i know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

...and Etel Adnan in Time, via Sarah Riggs: It’s good to live / where there’s dying, where the legends / go out...

And maybe Winterson knew all this, too: But not all dark places need light, I have to remember that.


Like this bit, on betrayal:

It’s not a word people use very often, which confuses me, because there are different kinds of infidelity, but betrayal is betrayal wherever you find it.  By betrayal, I mean promising to be on your side, and then being on somebody else’s.

Or (I say to myself as I read, thinking of much of my own family...), promising to be on your side, and then going absolutely, completely, silent.

A half-betrayal then.  The kind that can drag on between you (as I have learned, in phonecall after fucking phonecall...), for years.

Elsewhere, and maybe related (related anyway, I think, to my relatives...):

There’s no choice that doesn’t mean a loss.

And so I think too, how refraining from a choice, is maybe the biggest loss of all...


And like this, on going back:

“Don’t you ever think of going back?” [...] People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time.  Such things are too much. [...] Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to think of you changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.

I think of my family again.  Of a place that feels like the opposite of home, the way the opposite of a truth can be another truth.

[Acquired in early September of 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in Fiera di Primiero, Trentino, in September 2021.]

Jia Tolentino | Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
Jia Tolentino | Trick Mirror

To read in Tolentino’s introduction that she wrote this book between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018—a period during which American identity, culture, technology, politics, and discourse seemed to coalesce into an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict, a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things always got worse...  To read all that in any of these years that have come after, is to feel your throat constrict with a familiar, an almost comfortable kind of revulsion.


For the essay on a feminist obsession with “difficult” women and for the essay on the “easy” woman (or anyway on the ideal woman...)—forever optimizing her body for a market whose currencies are pegged to apparently “easy” or “effortless” and “natural” beauty, to “health” and to fitness, and to poise, success, and “self-care”:

The ideal woman looks beautiful, happy, carefree, and perfectly competent.  [But to] look any particular way and to actually be that way are two separate concepts, and striving to look carefree and happy can interfere with your ability to feel so.

Indeed, if in 1990 Naomi Wolf criticized a paradigm where a woman was expected to look like her ideal self all the time [italics mine], we have something deeper burrowing now—not a beauty myth but a lifestyle myth, a paradigm where a woman can muster all the technology, money, and politics available to her to actually try to become that idealized self, and where she can understand relentless self-improvement as natural, mandatory, and feminist—or just, without question, the best way to live.

(You can read that particular — and particularly spectacular — essay right now in the Guardian.  Then if you get the book you can read it again—if only because the Guardian version skips a certain bit...  Lets a little something go, you might say...)


For the piece on scamming as the definitive value of our time, and the depth and intensity with which she eviscerates each of the seven cons she covers:

The con is in the DNA of this country, which was founded on the idea that it is good, important, and even noble to see an opportunity to profit and take whatever you can.  The story is as old as the first Thanksgiving.

For the exploration especially, of the acquisitive, performative energy of the scam of the girlboss—the idea that by selling your personal brand, you can project yourself into an awesome life where you can do whatever you want:

This is meant to scan as a deeply feminist endeavour, and it generally does, at least to its participants, who have been bombarded for many years with the spurious, embarrassing, and limitlessly seductive sales pitch that feminism means, first and foremost, the public demonstration of getting yours.


For the meditation on marriage...  An essay I feel like I have been waiting for and conversing anyway with — in all its absence — for most of my adult life:

On the whole, though, the traditional wedding—meaning the traditional straight wedding—remains one of the most significant re-invocations of gender inequality that we have.  There is still a drastic mismatch between the cultural script around marriage, in which a man grudgingly acquiesces to a woman salivating for a diamond, and the reality of marriage, in which men’s lives often get better and women’s lives often get worse.  Married men report better mental health and live longer than single men; in contrast, married women report worse mental health, and die earlier, than single women.

And so it feels like a trick, a trick that has worked and is still working, that the bride remains the image of womanhood at its most broadly celebrated—and that planning a wedding is the only period in a woman’s life where she is universally and unconditionally encouraged to conduct everything on her terms.


And finally, for the piece on campus rape and sex and race and power at the University of Virginia.  A piece that I am still processing a year later, in all of its horrific honesty and all of its whiplashingly complex switchbacks, of rot and of poison and of wreckedness:

I’ve begun to think that there is no room for writing about sexual assault that relies on any sense of anomaly.  The truth about rape is that it’s not exceptional.  It’s not anomalous.  And there is no way to make that into a satisfying story.


Listen, this book is like sitting down with someone who is ferociously intelligent and aware and awake (some of us might say “woke”...), a mind that understands in all the ways it needs to that the personal was always political, to have a rovingly nuanced, occasionally urgent and frequently messy conversation about everything — I think really everything — that matters.

About religion and reckoning, about culture and literature and media, about bounty and beauty and power, about survival and truth and selfhood.

All of it.  Here, and now.

[Acquired in early September of 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in Fiera di Primiero, Trentino, in September 2021.]

Sigrid Nunez | Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag
Sigrid Nunez | Sempre Susan

How to explain it?  It’s hard to catch, because for most of this book you’re so busy drinking in all the deliciousness about Susan Sontag (that she loved to eat and hated teaching, that the famous white streak in her hair was the only part she didn’t dye, that she wore Dior Homme always and that she wore a skirt once...), and so you don’t notice until later (and even then, it is more a suspicion of a lingering scent—like blood that has been scrubbed away...), how carefully it’s been written.

How very, very carefully.


Still.  There is all that deliciousness.  Like Susan Sontag laughing at corny jokes (I tell you, even I cringed...), and Susan Sontag trying to tell her own (“Doctor, Doctor, vot should I do?”).  Like Sontag as the needy roommate (She couldn’t bear to have her morning coffee or read the newspaper alone, and would talk nonstop about whatever came into her head...) and Sontag as the inappropriate mother-in-law (“Why don’t you two just do sixty-nine?  Then you won’t have to worry about birth control.”)

But also, Susan Sontag with some mother-wounds:

I remember she talked about her mother frankly but without bitterness.  But later, so much more would be said, and with so much feeling, that her mother would become almost mythical: a cold, selfish, narcissistic brute of a woman, who never [...] encouraged her gifted daughter, who appeared not even to have noticed she had a gifted daughter.  “I would bring home these perfect report cards, and she’d sign them without saying a word.  She never praised me, and she took no interest in my education at all.”

I think of my own report cards, growing up.  For the scores that were perfect, I would often hear about “how easy” everything came to me, and how I “never really had to work for it” the way my brother did.  For the ones that weren’t, there was almost always — and only — the one kind of response: “Ninety eight percent?  Well.  Where did you lose those two points?”

(She never praised me...)

I think of how my mother later explained it (at some point, I guess I finally asked...): That she never praised me to others because “I didn’t want to be one of those mothers—what bores they are...”  That she never praised me to myself because “I don’t want you to get a big head.”


And the family-wounds too, that feel a little — how else to say it? — familiar:

Her writing... none of this meant much to her relatives, she said; her world was outer space to them.


Of course there was also Susan Sontag, goddess of that exact world — of writing and (maybe more importantly), of reading:

“Pay no attention to these writers who claim you can’t be a serious writer and a voracious reader at the same time.”  (Two such writers, I recall, were V. S. Naipaul and Norman Mailer.)  After all, what mattered was the life of the mind, and for that life to be lived fully, reading was the necessity.

(Earlier in the book, Joseph Brodsky scolding her, for wanting to own so many books, because the only proper thing to do with a book once you’d read it was to give it away.)

Also, my heart: The little ritual — copied, like so much else she did, by so many of us — of spending the last few minutes before leaving on a trip searching the shelves for a book she hadn’t read yet, to take along.

I think of that idea in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, that your library should contain as much of what you do not know as possible.  And I think too, of how I tried to tell a former boyfriend once, about the kind of comfort, security, and sheer, unadulterated exultation there is, in looking over at a shelf in your own home and seeing books on it, that you cannot wait to read.

(That he didn’t get it will tell you, at least in part, why he so quickly turned “former.”  Also the forced unprotected sex — that didn’t help much either.)

Anyway.  I think too of course, of that Japanese word so loved by bookish instagrammers everywhere.  Sontag couldn’t have known it, but I go googling anyway, and find a quote from The Volcano Lover:

A great private collection is a material concentrate that continually stimulates, that overexcites.  Not only because it can always be added to, but because it is already too much.  The collector’s need is precisely for excess, for surfeit, for profusion.  It’s too much—and it’s just enough for me. ... A collection is always more than is necessary.

Always more than necessary, and sempre just enough.

[Acquired in early September of 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in Fiera di Primiero, Trentino, in September 2021.]

Maggie Nelson | The Argonauts
Maggie Nelson | The Argonauts

Some books you love the first time.  Some books you love the second time—you have to come back and read them over again, from beginning to end.  And some books you have to come back to, but you must not them read them over again from beginning to end.  Instead and very specifically, you must read in discrete and disparate, carefully considered fistfuls—only and all of the parts that you had marked before.  Out of sequence, out of time, out of any cumulative progression of meaning.  Like stepping all the way up to a painting, so close the world falls away, so close ancora, the world of the painting falls away, and so it is only you and that small square of thought, creation, knowing.

(And not-knowing, too.)

Like spending a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.  The paradox then, quite literally, of why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

Because for so long, writing has been the only place I have felt it plausible to find my own me.

(How can the words not be good enough?)

Except on the other hand, once we name something: All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.

Because I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers.  How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?

(This could be what a conversation is—simply the outline of a becoming.)

Because I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and wondered anew, can everything be thought.

Because there is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.

(A becoming in which one never becomes, a becoming whose rule is neither evolution nor asymptote but a certain turning, a certain turning inward, turning into my own / turning on in / to my own self / at last / turning out of the / white cage, turning out of the / lady cage / turning at last.)


Like the idea, via Sara Ahmed, that the freedom to be happy restricts human freedom, if you are not free to be not happy.

(But one can make of either freedom a habit, and only you know which you’ve chosen.)

And speaking of Ahmed, like the idea too, that calling the speaker identitarian then serves as an efficient excuse not to listen to her, in which case the listener can resume his role as speaker.

(And certainly, there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing...)

Because how does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?

(Anything else.  Anything at all, really.)


Like the story of that marriage, in all its refusal to be a marriage (I had a strong conviction that my relationship with George was not an affair of the State): A slip that becomes a sliver of light filtering into their house for the next fifty-seven years.  Fifty-seven years of baffling the paradigm, with ardor.


Like the story of Harry understanding, being made to understand—each of the volunteers told me that my job was to let my mom know that it was ok to go.  And every lacerating line I wished I had read—a sword turning and turning inside—before my own died.  So that I would have known better.  Known so much, all of it, and everything better.

(i told her not to be afraid.  i thanked her.  i said, “thank you mom.”)

Listen.  You don’t get a second chance at being where, what, and who you need to be for the death of a parent.

(i cupped her warm hand in mine and let her go.  i told her one more time, you are surrounded in light, don’t be afraid.)

Listen, do the research.  Make yourself ready.  You will never not think, forever after, of otherwise.

[Acquired in early September of 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read over some of those days in Fiera di Primiero, Trentino, in September 2021...]

Rebecca Solnit | Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir
Rebecca Solnit | Recollections of My Nonexistence

My copy is currently out on loan.  But anyway I would have wanted, I suspect, to give you this bit, about being (and becoming, and be-becoming—I think of that label I have seen on the sides of so many barrels here in wine country: atto a divenire...) again and again and at last, a writer:

I encountered my fellow San Franciscan Diane di Prima’s work only later, including her declaration “You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology.”  Writing is often treated as a project of making things, one piece at a time, but you write from who you are and what you care about and what true voice is yours and from leaving all the false voices and wrong notes behind, and so underneath the task of writing a particular piece is the general one of making a self who can make the work you are meant to make.


I think—even at the time I thought—of Mary Ruefle in Madness, Rack, and Honey...  In that wonder-tapestry-of-an-essay on “Someone Reading A Book,” when she shares a favorite bit from the notebooks of the Greek poet George Seferis:

But to say what you want to say, you must create another language and nourish it for years and years with what you have loved, with what you have lost, with what you will never find again.


Back in Solnit, the idea that this kind of making of a self is not only for writers:

You are making something, a life, a self, and it is an intensely creative task as well as one at which it is more than possible to fail, a little, a lot, miserably, fatally.

Also the ways in which such making — this intensely creative task of making a life, a self — is wrapped up, for good and for bad, with wanting:

I wanted things so badly, with a desire that was so sharp it gouged me, and the process of wanting often took up far more time and imaginative space than the actual person, place, or thing, or the imaginary thing possessed more power than the real one.


And of course, all the ways too, in which this book is for every woman who has ever had to locate herself somewhere between being disdained or shut out for being unattractive, and being menaced or resented for being attractive. For every woman who has ever had to hover between two zones of punishment, in space that was itself so thin that perhaps it never existedtrying to find some impossible balance of being desirable to those we desired and being safe from those we did not.

So.  For pretty much every woman.

[Acquired sometime in the summer of 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read on and off through the summer, and finished in late August (before Trentino)...]

David Bayles & Ted Orland | Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
David Bayles & Ted Orland | Art & Fear

I wanted to give and tell you many things from this book.  About how I came to it, via yet another of these seemingly life-saving sessions with Maggie and the folks at PoFo—this time on process and fear.  About what Bayles and Orland say in the book, in fact, about fear:

Fears about artmaking fall into two families: fears about yourself, and fears about your reception by others.  In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.

And about how much that reminds me of what Felicia Rose Chavez says likewise, in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, about fear:

“Write a list of your writing fears,” I instruct my students.  “Don’t hold anything back.”  After they freewrite for ten minutes or so, I draw on an exercise from Writing Past Dark.  “Review your list,” I instruct, “and organize your fears into two categories.”

About how the first is internal, and the second is external.

(But I will write anyway.)

Instead as I look over all my notes, from this week and the week in which I read it, I realize that maybe all I want and need to give you (and me too, again and for always, to remember...), is this:

Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping.  The latter happens all the time.  Quitting happens once.  Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.

Back in August, that had made me think of what Richard Hugo says, in the title essay of The Triggering Town (another treasure I found, by way of Maggie and her sessions), about how you will always be chasing a way to write:

Over the years then, if you are a poet, you will, perhaps without being conscious of it, find a way to write—I guess it would be better to say you will always be chasing a way to write.  Actually, you never really find it, or writing would be much easier than it is.

It had made me think as well, of Plath in her journals:

And what is happy?  It is a going always on.  There is something better to be done than I have done, and spurred by the fair delusion of progress, I will seek to progress, to whip myself on, to more and more—to learning.  Always.

And this too, from Plath: Every day, writing.  No matter how bad.  Something will come.

There is much more, of course.  If you loved Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  If you are drawn to the ways in which Rilke and Rodin speak of work...  Of the way that only the work—only the doing and the making, in and of itself—can protect you...  If you looked long and hard in The Gift by Lewis Hyde, for an answer to the question of how to make art and live in the world at the same time (and sanely)...  If you love Dickinson for all the ways in which she answers that question—except sanity be slightly damned.  (Or sanity anyway, is not what they think it is.)

Then you might like this book.

[Acquired in early August 2021.]
[Swallowed almost whole, almost immediately after. Almost always nearby, since...]

adrienne marie brown | We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice
adrienne maree brown | We Will Not Cancel Us

For the difference between accountability, consequence, critique, and punishment.  (For how and how often, one is confused with another.)

Here I think of Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda in The Racial Imaginary, and exactly this kind of confusion:

It is to begin the conversation in the wrong place.  It is the wrong place because, for one, it mistakes critical response for prohibition.


For the idea that everything must change, including us.  For the idea of fractal responsibility...  And for the idea of getting excellent at being in conflict.

And speaking of conflict.  For the idea then, that we are in the very infantile stages of learning how to be in transformative justice practices with each other, to be abolitionist in real time...

I think of a stage we seem likewise to be in, when it comes to having constructive and meaningful and sustainable conversations—even and especially the kind that are “difficult”—on social media.  For there too, it feels like an infantile stage—a stage in which we are still learning.  At least some of us are learning, anyway.  Some of us because we choose to.  Some of us because choosing not to, is not even on the table.

(Not really anyway.  Not in any way that sticks.)


And for some learning too, on a kind of humility of knowing:

There are many things I do not know, am not expert in.  I try not to write, speak, or be seen as a teacher in those things.  Part of what happens when you become more well known is that people begin to ask you about things you don’t know, expect you to know everything...  And in this age of 24/7 punditry, there are a lot of generalists who take up space with what they don’t know, or only know a little bit about.  That brief, surface-level expertise is a pet peeve of mine—I’d rather know what I know and point to others who know what I don’t know.

Elsewhere and along those lines, for the kinds of questions to ask of oneself—as a writer and a speaker and a taker-up-of-spaces, big and little:

Who am I to be writing these things? [...] Are there topics I should never publicly explore?  Where are the places I might detract attention from more worthy voices...?  Am I using my privileges without clear intention?

I think of Rankine and Loffreda again, in The Racial Imaginary, and the way they unmask the language of rights (“I have the right to imagine from the point of view of anyone I want,” etc.) as a language of property, ownership and even dominion:

We’re saying we’d like to change the terms of that conversation...  [...]  To ask some first-principle questions instead.  So, not: can I write from another’s point of view?  But instead: to ask why and what for, not just if and how. [...] To speak not in terms of prohibition and rights, but [to] ask what we think we know, and how we might undermine our own sense of authority.

I want more of us to be asking these questions, before we speak.  More of us, and most definitely more of you.

(You especially.  You know who you are.)


And finally, for those of you wondering if this is a book that positions itself against “cancel culture” (and in that case, why on earth I was reading it), there is this:

Within a white supremacist justice system riddled with bias [...] asymmetrical tactics to confront those in power make sense.  As an abolitionist and as a survivor and as someone that has caused harm in the world as well as been a vector for healing, I have a deep compassion for those who seek to use their voices to name harm...

I also reject the right-wing myth that in calling out harm, the Left proves itself intellectually rigid.  I reject the idea that in our attempts to bypass a brutal criminal legal system by using our voice instead of the police, we have somehow moved from being defenders of dissidence to suppressors of speech.  That is right-wing propaganda and white supremacy’s lie.  That is patriarchy’s gaslighting and capitalism’s violence.

(You know it too.)

[Acquired at the end of July 2021.]
[Read/finished (in part at Le Volpi...) soon after.]

Cathy Park Hong | Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition
Cathy Park Hong | Minor Feelings

For the story of what happened on that F train.  (And what didn’t.)  For what her white friend said at the end of it all.

(For what always seems to happen: And just like that, I was shoved aside.)

For this little mic drop of a moment, on cultural appropriation, via Amiri Baraka:

“All cultures learn from each other.  The problem is that if the Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from Blind Willie, I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi.”

(For how that reminds me of — seems almost / in a way to work as a kind of riposte/clapback to — Paisley Rekdal’s Appropriate.)

For this, like looking at a mirror in a dark room:

I sometimes avoid reading a news story when the victim is Asian because I don’t want to pay attention to the fact that no one is paying attention.  I don’t want to care that no one else cares because I don’t want to be left stranded in my rage.

I think of an article I read in 2020, that resurfaced recently via a group I’m in for intersectional feminists.  It lists “16 Things Black People Want Their White Friends To Know.”  I think about how almost every one of those 16 things is a thing that most non-Black POC also want their white friends to know...  I think about the first thing on that list, and how it’s no coincidence, that it’s the first thing.  For all of us.

Elsewhere: the problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it’s silent.

(The problem with silence is that the rest of us, we hear you loud and clear.)

And speaking of mirrors.  For this too:

The white room was such the norm that often I barely even noticed it.  But when I did, I began to feel the whiteness in the room.  If a neutral background color, say white, turned traffic-cone orange everywhere you went, you’d become chronically stressed and your mind would curdle like a slug in salt.  That’s how I felt.  Only I had to pretend that I wasn’t seeing traffic-cone orange everywhere.

(In the margins of the page I have drawn in a sad face.  Above it: “Yes.”)

For this, on (white) innocence, via Robin Bernstein and Charles Mills:

Innocence is, as [Robin] Bernstein writes, not just an “absence of knowledge,” but an “active state of repelling knowledge,” embroiled in the statement “Well I don’t see race” and so on...  Innocence is both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness that, once protracted into adulthood, hardens into entitlement.  [It is] a deflection of one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy, based on the confidence that one is “unmarked” and “free to be you and me.”  The ironic result of this innocence, writes the scholar Charles Mills, is that whites are “unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.”

And speaking again of innocence, for this:

Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining.  It takes all your powers of persuasion.  Because it’s more than a chat about race.  It’s ontological.  It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality.  Except it’s even trickier than that.  Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist.

For the idea, via the scholar Linda Martìn Alcoff, of a kind of “white double-consciousness,” which involves seeing “themselves through both the dominant and the non-dominant lens, and recognizing the latter as a critical corrective truth.

(So, for hope.)

And finally, for the very definition of the term minor feelings—placed like a sorcerer’s stone at the center of the essay on “Stand Up.”  (For that essay alone...)  For the world that it opens up.

(So.  For the world that was already there, now named.)

Listen.  I have another four thousand words’ worth of quotes and thoughts and whatnot on this book.  I could go on and on.  Instead I will tell you just one more thing.  This was, quite possibly and by far, the best book I read in 2021.  Whether you’re Black or white or Asian, whether you’re innocent or woke or colorblind or complicit.  Just read it already.

[Acquired in mid-July 2021, deep in the midst of Poets and Scholars at Rutgers.]
[Read like a wildfire, over a single, scorched-earth weekend...]

Paisley Rekdal | Appropriate: A Provocation
Paisley Rekdal | Appropriate: A Provocation

In May of 2021 I wrote “Nuance Is the New Black,” partly as a response to / in conversation with “Translation is the canary in the coalmine,” a deeply spectacular essay by the very awesome Haidee Kotze, a professor of translation studies at Utrecht.  I reached out to Haidee after, and we struck up a longer conversation about the various circles of context in which our essays were moving—the worlds of translation, writing, reading, and publishing, and the ‘cans’ and ‘mays’ and ‘shoulds’ of those worlds.  (Haidee wrote a kind of sequel essay after, which I also love...  Not only because she mentions yours truly and “Nuance,” but because, like “Canary,” it is at once subtle, expansive, and carefully excellent.)  As it turned out, Paisley Rekdal’s book was one of a handful that came up in that conversation, because I had just watched a session with Rekdal at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, and it had felt — how to say this? — so very appropriate...  (Ha!)

By now you’re probably wondering what’s with all the textual throat-clearing (not to mention the corny pun-making), and why I’m taking so long to talk about the book itself.  The truth is, I did not like Appropriate nearly as much as I wanted to.  I wanted very much to like it, because I liked a lot of what Rekdal had to say in her session at the 92nd Street Y (for example, about asking cannier questions, about the problem with empathy, and about marketplace colonialism...), and because I think the worlds it explores are desperately in need of more books that explore those worlds...

But there was far more sloppy reasoning and faulty logic than I would have liked.  For example, some surprisingly consistent and copious use of zero–sum thinking (surprising, because in many other places and otherwise, Rekdal absolutely gets the importance of nuance and complexity, and of unpacking dualities that are not so dual / not so mutually exclusive...), and for example, some very whataboutey red herrings.  (Like when she sums up her views on the furore over American Dirt: It’s certainly easier to criticize American Dirt than [it is] to expect [that] the United States will reinvent its immigration policy, or that publishers will dismantle our current publication system, or that politicians will free migrant children incarcerated at the border.  Never mind that criticizing American Dirt does not have to preclude all of those other things, and more.)

Also, and as you may have noticed from just that one sentence, the writing is not as tight as it could be.

But still.  A lot — a lot — of what you need to know in order to be able to think intelligently, widely, and deeply about cultural appropriation in the worlds of writing, reading, and publishing, is here.  The difference between subject and motif appropriation; the difference between accuracy, authenticity, and truth; the difference between criticism and censorship.  Questions of desire and fetishization; questions of commodification and control; questions of rights, representation and remuneration; and questions of identity, empathy, and erasure.  That poem that Tony Hoagland wrote, the poem that Kenny Goldsmith read, and the poem that Michael Derrick Hudson did not publish (but that Yi-Fen Chou did).  The picture that Dana Schutz painted, the sombrero that Lionel Shriver wore, and the life that Rachel Dolezal lived.

It’s all here.

Also, this: Music and food and hairstyles, literary forms, and most articles of clothing are and will always be appropriated, repurposed, shared, bought and sold, assimilated and transformed.  [But] literary appropriation is trickier for us to deal with than the question of appropriating material products, because literature traffics in memory and history: the two things that most powerfully comprise and contextualize cultural identity.  It’s also why even the most empathetic writing of race, writing that investigates and sometimes reinvents historical memory, gets particularly tangled even as it attempts to treat the raced identity with respect, because these are the private and culturally defining stories that shape communities.  To write into these spaces is to tread on someone else’s intimate territory.

And this: If I praise the [White writer for creating an identity outside her own position] while simultaneously downplaying [or ignoring, or not even noticing] the work of people of color, I privilege the White writer’s imagination with having a cultural power that exceeds that of the non-White one.

And finally, this: I’m tired of thinking about race.  I’m tired of quietly bracing myself during interactions with strangers who may or may not be suddenly curious about “where I’m from.”  [And I’m tired, I want to add, of all the white non-Italians I know who would read such a line and think, “But Italians ask me where I’m from all the time too!”—and not understand the difference...]  And I’m tired of worrying that I’m offending strangers in turn, of negotiating the tricky obstacle course that allows me to respect racial difference without assigning racial meaning to it.  I’m tired of the daily paradox that racial knowledge presents me with, which is that we can never escape racial meaning and its implied hierarchies of power, even as I know that constantly attending to such difference and its meaning in the world is driving me insane.

So I guess I liked it enough after all.  More or less.

[Acquired at the end of June 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in the first half of July—including in relation to Poets and Scholars at Rutgers...]

Felicia Rose Chavez | The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How To Decolonize the Creative Classroom
Felicia Rose Chavez | The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop

For the way double consciousness triggers a double burden.  (Meanwhile, the white female professor uses a black pen to cross out references to ethnicity in my personal essay, noting in the margins, “You don’t need to make it a race thing.”)

For the idea of having writers honor their artistic mentors by researching a “family tree” of writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc., from whom their writing extends.  (For making space in that tree, for people that look and think and live, a little different.)

For that entire bit about Ana Castillo.  (All of it.)

For the idea — no, the truth and reality — of writing as a political, historical, and ideological act that is steeped in identity politics.  (Elsewhere and along these lines, for wondering why it is that identity politics only surface when reading writers of color?)

For the line from Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  (For the shades of James Baldwin, of course.  But also, for shades of that moment Claudia Rankine describes, when the white man asked her, “How can I help you?”  And what happened next.)

For that scene when she’s in graduate school, and the white professor asks the class, “Would you prefer that we bring in a person of color, or a quality writer, someone who’s doing really exciting things?”  (For shades of Rankine again, and that bit in Citizen about being in the dark, in the car, when he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there...)

For so many other scenes from when she’s in graduate school, struggling with all the anxiety and anger that come of being a person of color in a white space (I was one of the only people of color in my English Department, and that made me feel physically, emotionally, and intellectually at risk for harm...).  For when she tries to channel all that into language and agency and action, and her white peers (including her white friends and so-called “allies”) suggest she “tone it down...”  Because she’s making things worse.  Because “everyone’s already stressed out enough.”  (I think of a white friend of my own, who insisted that all this “racialized rhetoric” is “more alienating rather than less”...)  “Move on,” they said, but I wouldn’t.  And I couldn’t.  Move where? I wanted to ask.  I live in this skin.

For this question, among several in a survey she puts to teachers of creative writing (and maybe not only to them): How does your curriculum require white students to acquire the intellectual and cultural resources to function effectively in a plural society?  (For shades of George Abraham, and that essay I just read and wrote about: Because I am inviting the rest of you into a lyric collective beyond our present selves; a collective of who we are and are become.)

Also, and after all that.  A way perhaps, to finish...  I’ve told you elsewhere and already, about the excerpt that’s in this book, from Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?—the one about that conveyor belt we’re all on.  So here, instead and in addition, I will tell you about the excerpt from David Mura’s A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing:

Do whites lack a racial identity while only people of color possess one?  Obviously, this notion is absurd.  Is it people of color who gave themselves their racial identity?  No, historically white people have done this.  Is the identity and experience of people of color based solely on the practices of people of color?  Again, the answer is no.  Examining the fallacies invoked here leads to several revealing questions concerning race...  [...]  How difficult is it for whites to identify themselves as white?  And what exactly is the cause of this difficulty?

I know it seems weird to be talking, in talking about Chavez’s book, about the other books she references in hers.  But this to me has been for a long time, a sign of something important and good not only in a piece of writing, but in a writer.  And not only in a writer.  I love most the poets who mention the work of other poets in their interviews, the feminists who honor the work of other feminists in their own books, and the bloggers, scholars, artists, musicians and makers who are able to look outward even when they’re in the spotlight.  I love most when, in a conversation with any old someone, they can share that their learning and wisdom came from somewhere, and that they do not see this as taking away from the fact that it’s now theirs too, to share with you.

And so I guess what I’m saying, is that Chavez does this a lot.  And that it’s incredibly telling of the kind of generosity of spirit and of sense, with which this book brims.

[Acquired at the end of June 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in early July, in the runup to the Poets and Scholars Summer Writing Retreat at Rutgers...]

Mary Ruefle | Madness, Rack, and Honey
Mary Ruefle | Madness, Rack, and Honey

This one has taken me ages, because in coming back to it all these months after (to do this shelf-post), I wound up re-reading the whole darn thing over again.  And that too, more slowly even than the first time, because I kept stopping to consider and marvel and mark up more and more bits and pieces for here...  By the time I (re-)finished the book, there were some forty different post-it notes sticking out among its three-hundred-or-so pages, and far, far more to tell you here, than I could possibly include.  So consider this a fortieth — more or less — of what matters, means, and maddens in the best of ways, in Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey:

For the idea that listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come.

(Later, much later, she talks of course, of Socrates...)

For the idea of the word sentiment, which comes from the Latin verb to feel, as personal experience, one’s own feeling, including physical feeling—sensation—and also mental feeling—emotion: A thought or reflection colored by or proceeding from emotion—an emotional thought.

(Which begs the question of course, of whether there is any other kind of thought.  I’m here to tell you, no there isn’t. Not if you’re paying attention, anyhow.)

For that one way you can tell [if] there’s more to people than you might think—by going to their houses: If they have a lot of books, well, that means something.

And speaking of books, for all the questions, confessions, and calculations in “Someone Reading A Book Is A Sign of Order in the World.”

(For the single most metaphorically reverberative rendering of the experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, that I have ever encountered.)

For moments like this: I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.

(I am a writer, and the next step is inevitable: I used what had been revealed to me in my writing.)

For this, via Margaret Mead, on the intellectual: someone who is bored when they don’t have the chance to talk interestingly enough.  (Now a book will talk interestingly to you.)

And for this, via George Steiner, on the same: someone who can’t read without a pencil in her hand.  One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them...

(Here I think of Sontag, via Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez: Like her, I always read with a pencil in hand (never a pen), for underlining.)

For the two tasks of your life (via Kafka): to narrow your orbit more and more, and ever and again to check whether you are not in hiding somewhere outside your orbit.

For that essay I first found years ago, and never tire of reading.

(For the two fragments on Rodin and Berger, especially.)

For the idea of the lecture — among the many “Lectures I Will Never Give” — on that photograph.  The one of Beckett, Giacometti, and the Thing.

And speaking of Giacometti, for this (via Giacometti): I do not know whether I work in order to make something or in order to know why I cannot make what I would like to make.

For the way in which capitalism, like the Arctic environment, is a system THAT DOESN’T CARE IF YOU LIVE OR DIE.

For the way it sometimes seems like we are reading more — much more and much other — than what is merely before us.

(Quiddity: the essence of a thing; also, a trifling point, a trivial, inessential thing.)

And finally, for this: Nothing I understand haunts me.  Only the things I do not understand have that power over me.

(Here I think of Le Guin, though maybe a little tangentially, a little obliquely...  A thought that kitty-corners then, with this one: To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them.)

As Gwyneth Lewis puts it in a review at Poetry, Mary Ruefle’s book is the fruit of fifteen years’ lecturing and it shows.  But — I hear you ask — what is this book about?

Is it about poetry?  No.  Is it about everything?  No again.

And they’re the same thing, anyway.

[Acquired in May 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read mostly through the second half of May, more or less.]

Richard Brautigan | In Watermelon Sugar
Richard Brautigan | In Watermelon Sugar

Among the many gifts that that long-wanted master’s gave me, was the gift of discovering Richard Brautigan in Sombrero Fallout (thank you Tim and Tessa—for Brautigan, for Carson and Markson, for Perec and for Sikelianos, and for so many others I am now so wealthy with...).  And so when I found this among the used bookstacks at Todo Modo for all of two or three euro—I remember it was the start of an uncommonly unfettered afternoon at the end of May, and I had stopped in hoping for just such a book, singular and slim and unquestionably meant for me—of course I proceeded to fold the rest of the afternoon around it.  Of course the afternoon became an afternoon of Brautigan.

In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.  I will tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.

How to describe this book?  Think of Kurt Vonnegut and Gertrude Stein.  Some kinds of Italo Calvino and some Lydia Davis.  And maybe Hemingway too, except it is a deconstructed, almost atonal Hemingway.

The long walks I take at night.  Sometimes I stand for hours at a single place, without hardly moving.  (I’ve had the wind stop in my hand.)


The two evening stars were now shining side by side.  The smaller one had moved over to the big one.  They were very close now, almost touching, and then they went together and became one very large star.

I don’t know if things like that are fair or not.


I have nine things, more or less: a child’s ball (I can’t remember which child), a present given to me nine years ago by Fred, my essay on weather, some numbers (1-24), an extra pair of overalls, a piece of blue metal, something from the Forgotten Works, a lock of hair that needs washing.

Think of a story told in shadow play and found sound.  Think of someone who has filled for you a row of dreamcolored drinking glasses, each with a differently lit and viscous water.

Everything is reflected in the Statue of Mirrors if you stand there long enough and empty your mind of everything else but the mirrors, and you must be careful not to want anything from the mirrors.  They just have to happen.

Think of a kind of poetry that is at once mysterious (like sleight of hand, you keep wondering—how does he do it?), and unsettling, and skylike simple.

Some people cannot see anything in the Statue of Mirrors, not even themselves.

[Acquired in late May 2021, from Todo Modo.]
[Read mostly that same day (with lunch at Santo, I think...), and finished by the first of June.]

Audre Lorde | The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde | The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde

If you follow the Poetry Foundation’s monthly Book Club discussion series, you know that they tend to fill up fast.  And that they make you choose between pairs of consecutive sessions, so if you sign up for the January session you have to skip the February session (or vice versa).  Some time in March of this year, I read that the April pick was Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems by Jean Valentine.  I love Valentine, and hold the sound of her quiet voice saying things like “inkwell, daybreak” and “I am sending you this seed pod” and “this is a dream poem” in the pockets of my heart like small colored stones from beaches I’ve been to.  And so I thought, yes.  Then, in the sentence right after, I read that the May pick (and therefore the alternative—the session I would have to forego, if I did the session on Valentine...), was going to be on The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.

Of course I picked Lorde.  All four-hundred and eighty-nine pages and all three-hundred-and-something poems of her.  All those lines that blaze and pulse.

Like this bit, from “Moving In”:

remove me from the was
I still am
to now

And like these lines, from “Coal”:

There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how sound comes into a word, coloured
by who pays what for speaking.


Love is a word, another kind of open.

And like this, in “School Note”:

and remember
for the embattled
there is no place
that cannot be
nor is.

I like to think Valentine would understand.

[Acquired in late March 2021.]
[Read through March and April and May.  Then too, not even finished...]

Jenny Offill | Dept. of Speculation
Jenny Offill | Dept. of Speculation

Here’s a book that makes you wonder what books would be if they weren’t what they are—I mean as the physical objects they are.  These stacked successions of page after page, each following the other, each filled with lines of telling, line after following line.  What if books had been invented to look like those pie-tokens in Trivial Pursuit?  Except with hundreds or even thousands of wedges, some similarly colored and some not so much, and all of them connecting at a single, encompassing center?  And what if the pies weren’t pies but globes?

What if we had books that worked like that card game in which you turn over two cards at a time, and after a while if you’re paying attention, you start to remember where all the pairs are...

What if we had books that worked like table-top kaleidoscopes?

I think a little of that bit in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking:

I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines.  This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning.

Years ago a fellow writer tried to tell me there’s no such thing as a lyric essay—that it didn’t count as a legitimate form (whatever “legitimate” might have meant)—or as a real or meaningful distinction in form...  At the time I did not argue too hard or too well.  These were still the years in which, when you Googled the term, you’d get some editor somewhere saying “Isn’t it for the reader to decide how lyric your prose happens to be?  Hmm?”  (Or something like that anyway...)  But I had read enough lyric essays by then to know—in that wordless way we sometimes start to know things—that this was in fact a wholly meaningful distinction in form, and that the meaning and meaningfulness lay maybe, in the spaces we hadn’t yet named.

This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning.

Anyway.  Offill’s book is lovely and funny and full of those spaces.  In the end it hurts you, but only and exactly in all the places it made you tender in the beginning.  Like with this moment, on early love:

I learned you were fearless about the weather.  You wanted to walk around the city.  Come rain come snow come sleet, recording things.  I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets.  You put your hands in all of them.

And like with these, on early motherhood:

I read a study once about sleep deprivation.  The researchers made cat-sized islands of sand in the middle of a pool of water, then placed very tired cats on top of them.  At first, the cats curled up perfectly on the sand and slept, but eventually they’d sprawl out and wake up in water.  I can’t remember what they were trying to prove exactly.  All I took away was that the cats went crazy.

I have a chunk of vomit in my hair, I realize right before class.  Chunk is maybe overstating it, but yes, something.  I wash my hair in the sink.  I am teaching a class called “Magic and Dread.”

Of course it is difficult.  You are creating a creature with a soul, my friend says.

Like this, on long-term coupledom:

At night, they lie in bed holding hands.  It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.

And like this, on breakage:

Sometimes she just stands and looks out the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga live.

Like these, on existence:

If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.

What Wittgenstein said: What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.

We applied our muzzy intellects to a theory of light.  That all are born radiating light but that this light diminished slowly (if one was lucky) or abruptly (if one was not).  The most charismatic people—the poets, the mystics, the explorers—were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of this light that was meant to have dimmed.  But the shocking thing, the unbearable thing it seemed, was that the natural order was for this light to vanish.  It hung on sometimes through the twenties, a glint here or there in the thirties, and then almost always the eyes went dark.

And like this, on something that feels unnameably important:

The husband sets up their old telescope.  There is almost no light pollution here.  The wife looks up at the sky.  There are more stars than anyone could ever need.

More spaces than we can name.

[Acquired in mid-April 2021.]
[Read — after Andrew — in early May.]

Sarah Manguso | The Guardians: An Elegy
Sarah Manguso | The Guardians: An Elegy

Some books you want to tell about, through their own pieces.  Sometimes because the way they hold together doesn’t quite make sense to you—is still, even after reading, a shape you don’t have a name for.  I don’t have a name for the shape this book makes of grief.  The map it traces.  And anyway there is no destination.  Which brings me maybe, to as good a piece, a line, as any to start with:

I believe in the possibility of unendurable suffering.

Also—and speaking of shapes you can’t name:

I’m working on a book about a man who jumps in front of a train.  I have no interest in hanging a true story on an artificial scaffolding of plot, but what is the true story?  My friend died—that isn’t a story.

I can’t measure my grief and I can’t show anyone what color it is.

Some parts of the story are gone, but they have left a heavy imprint, and even now I can detect the shape of what made it, the shape of what used to exist.

Do you see?  Even if you cannot name a shape, you can describe the way it will not be named.  And sometimes too, some other qualities.  This much solid and this much luminescence.  This much liquidity, this viscous:

What I carry now—it brightens sometimes, without warning—is not his pain.  This pain is mine, and unlike my friend, I don’t try to hide it.  I let it get all over everything.

Elsewhere still, a particularly particular thing:

A Catholic asked me about the raging and the yelling and the weeping at Harris’s funeral, having never seen it before.  It’s because for Jews, death is real, I told her, understanding it myself for the first time, the reason I prefer Jewish funerals to Catholic ones, where we’re told that heaven waits for us happily, with all its lights on.

(Particularly particular, in the way I think likewise of Muslim funerals, where I’m told again and again like layer after layer of cluelessly white cotton, they’re in a better place now.  Of the rage it never fails to fill my mouth with.  Of how hard it’s getting, funeral after funeral, not to say in return, well if you think it’s so much better here’s hoping you get there soon.  That kind of rage.)

And finally, some things that feel both true and lacerate:

I want to know about my particular grief, which is unknowable, just like everyone else’s.

My grief is for myself.

[Acquired in late April 2021.]
[Read over two or three days, almost right away, and in Florence.]

Nesrine Malik | We Need New Stories
Nesrine Malik | We Need New Stories

I started paying attention to Nesrine Malik some time in the middle of 2020, after a friend had tut-tutted me about cancel culture, and after a piece by Malik — along with some two dozen others I read on and off through that summer — helped me to better articulate some parts of the neverending response that I never sent that friend.  So when I saw that Malik had a book out on the shitty stories that the (still colonial, imperialist and mostly white) world is still trying to tell us, I bit.

The writing is more than a little clunky in places, — I suspect the publishers she used for the book’s first edition skimped on editing (Norton later picked up the book and released it in the US, hopefully with some fixes for sentence structure) — but her arguments are tight as a pair of Minneapolis handcuffs.  From the con of the reliable narrator to the delusion of gender equality, and from the “crises” in political correctness, free speech, and identity politics to the nonsense of national exceptionalism (what she also calls the myth of virtuous origin — perhaps the most versatile and pervasive of all...), this book calls spade after spade by its disingenuous, fallacious and/or intellectually lazy name.

It doesn’t hurt either, that she starts off with a story about the lies her own grandmother told of, their family’s history and standing in Sudan.  I’m still trying to think of a single other instance I know of, in which a writer — maybe especially an immigrant writer — outs the myths of their own background in this way.

What else?  There’s the bit where she points out that the only difference between Western and Eastern honor killings, is that the latter are sometimes perpetrated by extended male family members and sometimes mothers, but all that tells us is that in Western societies a woman’s ownership has been transferred from her family, to her male partner.  There’s some wonderful skewering of Steven Pinker, to whom she refers rather delightfully as a promoter of inexorable enlightenment — about as good as “annoying white male intellectual,” “world’s most annoying man” and of course, plain old “Pollyanna.”  (There are some deliciously welcome swipes likewise, at the exceptionalist myth-making of the Enlightenment itself.)

And there is this from Judith Butler:

If free speech does take precedence over every other constitutional principle and every other community principle, then perhaps we should no longer claim to be weighing or balancing competing principles or values.  We should perhaps frankly admit that we have agreed in advance to have our community sundered, racial and sexual minorities demeaned, the dignity of trans people denied, that we are, in effect, willing to be wrecked by this principle of free speech.

Finally, and across the book, there is a kind of systematic education in the tools and techniques — a cast of recurring characters — that enable all this myth-making and maintaining.  From exceptionalism to entitlement, from pearl-clutching appeals to progress and context to whataboutey concerns for slippery slopes and false equivalence, from moral narcissism to the magical thinking of meritocracy, from grievance creation and grievance “flipping” to frequency scrambling and (perhaps my most favoritely-named) “nutpicking” — it feels like a demonstration, over and over again, of that thing Lorde said about poetry: give name to the nameless so it can be thought.

A systematic naming, then.  Those spades again.

[Acquired in early April 2021.]
[Read through April, in Florence.]

Ursula K. Le Guin | No Time to Spare
Ursula K. Le Guin | No Time to Spare

I had really wanted The Wave in the Mind.  Or anyway, that was the book I had set out to want, one day when I discovered that it was named for, and epigraphed for, and included an essay on that bit in Woolf’s letters to Sackville-West—that bit I have loved so long and so much, and believe in a little like some people believe in karma (some people, and maybe even me):

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong.  Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm.  Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.  But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm.  Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words.  A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.  But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

I don’t remember now, why I wound up instead with No Time to Spare.  Perhaps it had to do with what could come sooner.  I do remember though, that what swayed me was the fact that it’s culled from a blog that Le Guin decided to try her hand at, in her final years.  I liked that she was both humble and generous enough to note that her decision was inspired by the blogs of José Saramago: They were published this year in English as The Notebooks.  I read them with amazement and delight.

And I loved that she felt the same way about comments as I do: I was also put off by the idea that a blog ought to be “interactive,” that the blogger is expected to read people’s comments in order to reply to them and carry on a limitless conversation with strangers.  I am much too introverted to want to do that at all.

But what I loved maybe most of all was the unpretentiousness — the humility again — with which she encountered the form, both in terms of her openness to its legitimacy, validity, whatever, and in terms of her readiness to trying it out live and online, with the rest of us:

After all, despite the new name, they were just opinion pieces or essays, and writing essays has always been tough work for me and only occasionally rewarding.

But seeing what Saramago did with the form was a revelation.

Oh!  I get it!  I see!  Can I try too?

My trials/attempts/efforts (that’s what essays means) so far have very much less political and moral weight than Saramago’s and are more trivially personal.  Maybe that will change as I practice the form, maybe not.  Maybe I’ll soon find it isn’t for me after all, and stop.  [...]  What I like at the moment is the sense of freedom.

Me too, Ursula.  Me too.

[Acquired in late February 2021.]
[Read through late March and early April, in Florence.]

Toni Morrison | The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison | The Bluest Eye

You don’t really need me to tell you about a book by Toni Morrison.  Especially this one.  (Especially after I confess that this is my first Toni Morrison.)

And in fact, I don’t know that I want to talk about the book as a book—I don’t even know if I liked the book, as a book.  (Anyway with a book like this one — a story like this one — “like” is a word that sticks a little, in the throat...)  I suspect rather strongly, that I will have to read at least a few more books by Toni Morrison, before I can be where I need to be, to come back to this one.  Though again — with a story like this one — to “come back” is not a thing I’m so sure I want...

And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?  This isn’t a pleasant story.  This isn’t a story you enjoy reading.  This isn’t a world you want, at any point in your reading really, to be in.  And yet.

All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her.  We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness.  Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor.  Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent.  Her poverty kept us generous.  Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares.  And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.  We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.

And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved.  We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.  We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth...


We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter.  It’s too late.

And yet.

[Acquired in March 2021.]
[Read around the end of March / early April, in Florence.]

Claudia Rankine & Beth Loffreda | The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind
Claudia Rankine & Beth Loffreda | The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind

How to talk to you about this collection?  About the way it matters what happened to make it happen.  (About all the ways that mattered, too.)  About the way it matters once you have read it.  And the way it matters as well, if you have not — if you have decided for all the usual reasons, that you don’t need to.

You can find the introductory essay at Lit Hub, and while it is excellent in its own right, it’s only the introductory essay.  Meanwhile, the rest of this book is everything an essay collection of this kind should be — which makes it near impossible to describe, encapsulate or summarize.

I can tell you though, about the honesty with which almost every single essay does its essaying.  Sometimes at cross-purposes to other essays, sometimes at cross-purposes to what you or I (or Rankine) might think of the project.  Sometimes at cross-purposes even, to the writer.

And there are some flashes.  There’s Francisco Aragón, on what the poet-critic Craig Santos Perez refers to (and what any writer or reader of color will immediately recognize) as the condition of TOC Anxiety.  There’s Rachel Zucker on how if I don’t say anything it means straight.  Means white.  Exempt from mention.  There’s Tess Taylor on a space of normativity that is so strong that it doesn’t even acknowledge its own existence.  Helen Klonaris, on how you cannot move from a place you deny you are in.  (On how you cannot dismantle a system you choose not to see.)  And Beth Loffreda herself, suggesting that perhaps one way, if you are white, to take note of your whiteness is to pay attention if you feel a little p.o.’ed, a little restricted, when asked to think if your race matters to what you write or read or think...  There’s Dan Beachy-Quick on answering what’s human in the question.  There’s Jess Row, taking it for granted that part of my background and my psychology is racist...  But taking it for granted is only an entry point...  (Speaking of which, there are also some embarrassingly bad or anyway tone-deaf essays too — like those by Charles Bernstein and Arielle Greenberg...)  There’s Bettina Judd on how race is implicit in everyone’s work especially when the race is white.  And Kristin Palm on the degree to which we hold one another accountable.  Bhanu Kapil on how sometimes it’s about what I wish someone else had said in (my) stead.  And Diane Exavier on how personal this all is.  There’s Dawn Lundy Martin, on how everywhere I look there’s a whole bunch of white people failing to recognize that nearly everyone else in the room is also white.

And there’s Danielle Pafunda asking for old time’s sakewhat is to be done?

Here’s one way, she writes, as an answer: if someone from the marked or marginalized category tells us we’ve fucked up, it’s a good idea for us, no matter how wrongly accused we feel, to shut up, sit down, consider what we’ve done from new and many perspectives.  It’s also a good idea for us to tell our egos and shame spirals to can it.  To consider that the current hegemonic center may be a dying star, that new centers may be blooming all around us.  To keep stepping into the dialogue, humble, ready.  Eager for a new, non-toxic dynamic.

So.  Everyone is here.

[Acquired in September 2020, after that summer...]
[Read on and off through the fall and spring; finished in late March 2021.]

Eula Biss | Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays
Eula Biss | Notes from No Man’s Land

The first time I read Notes from No Man’s Land was in September 2019, somewhere in the southwest of France.  Then, at the end of 2020 and given the summer we had had — the summer and the year and this always we seem now to be in — I decided to re-read it.  (Also: Andrew had just taken his turn at it, and he wanted to discuss it with me—aren’t we cute?).

So this, already, was my second reading.  And I suspect it will not be the last.  For the echoes of Didion, of course.  And for that first essay alone—the one about telephone poles.  (Those poles, of course, that were not to blame.)  For the essay on the twins, and for Eve Johnson and her grandchildren.

For her telling — in the essay on “All Apologies” — of what happened at the 2001 World Conference against Racism.  I will tell it to you here, but I will tell it in a different order:

The French parliament unanimously acknowledged that “the transatlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade, perpetrated from the fifteenth century against Africans, Amerindians, Malagasies and Indians, constitutes a crime against humanity.”

Spain issued a statement of “deep regret” over slavery.

The German foreign minister did not apologize, but he said that recognizing historical guilt could restore “dignity that had been stolen.”

England did not apologize, for legal reasons.

The United States and Israel walked out of the Conference.

Most of all for a kind of racial honesty — a racial awakeness — in relation to others, but also to and with the self, that I have yet to find in any other white writer alive today.

(I think of Dawn Lundy Martin’s essay in The Racial Imaginary: Everywhere I look, there’s a whole bunch of white people failing to recognize...)

Like when she is alone and struggling to live in New York City, and a Sicilian immigrant plumber helps her out:

I learned to make my experience of being young and new to the city sound effortless and zany.  I didn’t mention [...] my sickening realization that Sal was helping me because I was white.  He made me aware of this fact with a barrage of racial slurs that I failed to respond to with anything but silence.  Silence because I needed his help and I suddenly understood the contract.

Like years later, when she has recently moved into an integrated but steadily whitening neighborhood of northern Chicago, and she stops into an antiques shop with signs in the windows that read: “Warning, you are being watched and recorded.”  The white owner of the shop welcomed me to the neighbourhood warmly and delivered an introductory speech dense with code.  This neighbourhood, he told me, needs “more people like you”.  He and other “people like us” were gradually “lifting it up”.

For the fact that she is a white writer — a white person — who actually recognizes and talks about this code.  Who is, again, awake to it.

Later she is chatting with her landlord (another white man) near her neighborhood park—a park that is empty in the winter, but fills in the summer with Spanish-speaking families making picnics on the grass and Indian families playing cricket and groups of black teenagers sitting on the benches and young men playing volleyball in great clouds of dust until dusk.

“The warm weather,” her landlord tells her, “brings out the riffraff.”

When my landlord said this, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of our building in my bathing suit, still dripping from the lake, and a boy leaving the park asked if I had a quarter.  I laughed and told the boy I don’t typically carry change in my bathing suit, but he remained blank-faced, as uninterested as a toll-collector.  His request, I suspect, had very little to do with any money I may have had or any money he may have needed.  The exchange was intended to be, like so many of my exchanges with my neighbors, a ritual offering.  When I walk from my apartment to the train I am asked for money by all variety of people—old men and young boys and women with babies.  Their manner of request is always different, but they are always black and I am always white.  Sometimes I give money and sometimes I do not, but I do not feel good about it either way, and the transaction never fails to be complicated.

Do you see the awakeness?  They are always black and I am always white.

[Acquired in late August 2019.]
[Read first in September 2019 and then again, on and off, from January to March 2021.]

Danielle Vogel | Edges & Fray: on language, presence, and (invisible) animal architectures
Danielle Vogel | Edges & Fray

I’ve been doing these workshops with the Poetry Foundation for almost a year now, and some day I will tell you properly about some of the many ways in which they are saving my life — or rather, perhaps, the many ways in which they are making and saving and make-saving a space inside of myself, small enough to be quiet, large enough to breathe in, light enough to see my own hands.

But in the meantime, there is this one way that has to do with finding — through our February session on “Process & Ritual” — Danielle Vogel and her Edges & Fray.  Over at Entropy, you can find selections from the book.  And if you are anything like me, you will break your Amazon embargo to order it before you have finished reading what’s there — which is strange too in a sense, because one of the most wonderful things about these fragments is how re-readable they are.  How each seems like a piece of sculpture that you can walk around and walk away from and come back to—how it changes with the light.  (Or maybe you do.)

Virginia Woolf wrote, “A book is not made of
sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if
an image helps, into arcades and domes.” I’d like to
think that Woolf understood about refuge, how we
might come to language as architects of relation,
collecting ourselves, a series of intersections,
seeking to build the largest, most intimate

Later when the book arrives, you find it begins with a note to the reader:

This book is intentionally structured as a series of filaments.  I cast a thought, leave it to begin another fray, and then return.  And while I wove the fragments and photographs in a way that can be read linearly, I invite you to lift these poems in any order...

Tom DeBeauchamp has written a perfect review, also in Entropy.  So I will not say much more.  Except—and this is maybe more so I myself can remember—that this book feels like a large and many-winged house that is on the one hand strange and new to you, and on the other, yours alone to explore.  No one else is here.  You can turn down any hallway and step into any room.  You can stand at any window and look out.  (Or maybe in.)

It feels too, like the impossible merging of something wholly architected—a carefully made thing—with something absolutely organic.  A wholly there thing.

[Acquired in early February 2021.]
[Read through mid-February — mostly in the mornings...]

Doris Lessing | The Golden Notebook
Doris Lessing | The Golden Notebook

The last time I wanted to throw a book across a room it was The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.  I feel more than a little bad putting Lessing in such company, because The Golden Notebook is way, way better (and better-written) than that manipulative piece of zero-dimensional brown-people porn.  There is no comparison, really.  But still.  I did not like this book.

Afterwards, in an effort to understand what I was maybe missing, I read some reviews.  Along the way I re-discovered a personal essay by Lara Feigel in Lit Hub, in which she lays a re-reading of The Golden Notebook over a summer of reckoning with feminism, free women, and white weddings.  I loved that essay back when I first read it, in 2018.  And even now I would much rather quote you bits from that, than from the book itself.

Maybe that’s why, in dallying a little with that idea, I found myself pausing at one particular part of Feigel’s essay:

Reared at a school where we’d been taught that girls could do everything and had no need of boys, we felt that there would be an element of self-betrayal involved in entering a state where we became dependent on the desire, approval and companionship of men.

That line jumps out at me now, because I realize how much it has to do with — no, points directly at — the thing that bothered me about The Golden Notebook.  Which is that yes, it is abundantly clear that what matters to Lessing, what she is exploring and underscoring and what is absolutely important to the book’s meaning and fire, is Anna’s passionate determination not to define herself, or to be defined in relation to her lover.  And yet.  You know the Bechdel test?  This book fails the Bechdel test, utterly and spectacularly.  There are way, way too many pages in which Anna (and therefore the reader) is thinking, wondering, and worrying about what a man is thinking, saying, or doing.  Not only does it feel like way too many pages (I’d guess at least sixty percent of the book), it feels like way too many repetitive pages.

Here I think of a line from one of the reviews I read in the Guardian, in which Diana Athill says something similar about the book’s overly minute analysis of communism:

[The] situation was interesting, but not so tremendously interesting as all that. Lessing’s involvement with it made me think of the Holy Roman Emperor’s supposed comment on an opera by Mozart: “Too many notes.” On this subject Lessing had written “too many words”.

Anyway.  I did throw it across the room, about two seconds after reading the last line.  Though I see now, that it was a different kind of throwing than with The Kite Runner.  The Kite Runner I wanted to throw across the room mostly because it was garbage.  This.  This I wanted to throw across the room because it made me so angry.

(I aimed for the armchair though.)

[Acquired in early January 2021.]
[Read mostly in late January / early February — in tandem with poor Carlotta!]

Sigrid Nunez | The Last of Her Kind
Sigrid Nunez | The Last of Her Kind

There is the story of a young woman arriving for the first time, into the world of New York City:

Two suitcases: one old, hard, battered, and heavy; the other soft and brand-new.  At the bus terminal in New York, a man appeared — big, handsome, smiling, as if he’d been sent to greet me.  He offered to help, and I was surprised when, after hefting each bag, he chose the lighter one.  And then, as if to prove that this really was a place like no other, a city where miracles could happen, he vanished into thin air.

One suitcase.  I lugged it to the taxi stand.

Hard not to see myself in that girl, getting off Greyhounds and coming up stairways to Christopher Street, Ninth Street, Penn.  Those doors at World Trade that never stopped swinging.  That feeling as the train pulled into those vaulted darknesses beneath Grand Central.  That feeling to come up after, into so much light.  Hard not to remember putting a folded five-dollar bill in the bottom of your left shoe.  Nodding as your brother says don’t stand too close to the edge of the platform when you’re waiting for a train, because people push.  Thinking as you look out over the next four years of walking these streets (though it turned out to be more, thank goodness more), that you will very likely, at some point, more than likely even — be mugged.  Hard not to think of all that.

This book was not The Friend.  (Some day I will go backwards down this list, and tell you about that one.)  But it was good.  It does what novels should do — it conjures up people and ideas and times, and time.  Much of it messy, as all of that tends to be.

[Acquired in early January 2021.]
[Read almost right away, almost entirely over a weekend, in Florence.]

Michela Murgia | How to Be a Fascist
Michela Murgia | How to Be a Fascist

A little too much of this book was a little too uncomfortable.

At first, I thought those would be the parts (though there are many) that I’d pull in here, to talk about.  But in re-reading and considering all the paragraphs I underlined, all the pages I dog-eared, and all the places in the margins where I say “Ouch”—I keep thinking how, satire or not, I cannot bring myself to have such sentences on my own site.  I don’t care how clearly the sarcasm comes through.  I can’t do it.

Instead, and for starters, I will give you the bit where she — or the narrator anyway — explains how language is the most malleable cultural infrastructure that fascism (and fascists) have:

Why would anyone need to overthrow institutions if all you need to do in order to seize them is to change the referent of a word, and make sure everyone speaks it? (Or, I would add, make sure no one minds when it’s spoken?)

Words generate behaviour, and those who control words control behaviour.  That’s the starting point: the names we give to things and the way we talk about them...

Later, in a chapter on free speech, dissent, and other key tools of fascism (because all tools, if used in a fascist manner, become useful to fascism), she assures ascendant and would-be fascists that when it comes to democratic contexts, they can hide in plain sight, because both progressive and conservative democrats will do everything they can to believe that [fascists are] not actually fascists: they will voluntarily ignore all signs that point to the fact that we’ve always been here, we never left, and we’ve been organizing for years.  They’ll call us “nostalgic”, “alt-right”, “nationalists”, or whatever, but they will be the first not to want to say the word “fascists”...

And if someone does actually catch on, she adds, and calls such people by the f-word, or suggests they should not be given space, air-time, legitimacy, whatever—all they need to do is cry: “See? You don’t actually believe in democracy!  You want to silence dissent, crush differences, pluralism, opinions different from yours,” and the impossible will happen: being a flawed mechanism, a democracy accused of being anti-democratic will short-circuit, and its supporters will even start thinking that they are the real fascists if they don’t let you speak.  This is the beauty of democracy: unlike fascism, it can always be used against itself.

Sounds familiar, no?  They will start thinking that they are the real fascists if they don’t let you speak.  Ugh.

She does this a lot.  Bits of logic that feel so familiar that I do not know whether to laugh or to be sick to my stomach.  Like with this, on how to hijack history:

The sequence that a fascist will follow, once the time is right, is linear: pollute the memory of others, then destabilize it and, finally, rewrite it.

For this process too, she recommends an all-too-familiar and trusted tool.  Because how does one begin?  With nuance.  It’s through nuance that you will be able to start the pollution.  After all, it’s really just a matter of muddying the waters:

Keep repeating that there was “a lot more going on too”.  Democracy pits young brave men against violent murderers?  Tell them that it’s easy to judge in hindsight, but back then everything was so blurred that even Churchill praised Hitler’s qualities as a state leader.  The supporters of democracy commemorate their dead?  You must also show up with your laurel wreaths [...], because all fallen lives matter.  If believers in democracy recount all the horrors of fascism [...], point to roads, infrastructure, monuments over on the continent, and say: “They did good things too.”

See what I mean?  It’s easy to judge in hindsight.  Back then everything was so blurred...  And really, all fallen lives matter.

Because you know...  They did good things too.


[Acquired in October 2020, from Feltrinelli.]
[Read mostly in late December 2020, in Florence.]

Vivek Shraya | even this page is white
Vivek Shraya | even this page is white

There is a section of poems entitled “whitespeak.”  (Among them “a lover’s bookshelf,” which is hilarious.)  You consider this word, whitespeak.  You know, exactly.

In the next section, a poem that makes you remember the way something in you, something you sometimes and often enough wish wouldn’t, is always doing this thing that the poem is doing.  Watching their Facebook posts for what they are watching and reading and writing.  An every-waking-moment and automatic census of what they are always acknowledging into being, with their very attention.  (And what not.)

Anyway.  This is the winking and quiet wryness, of “count the brown people”:

1n y0ur 1tunes tw1tter
feed fr1end c1rcle


0n the walls 0f y0ur art
gallery tv screen l1sts cred1ts

at y0ur galas dance
d1nner h0use


               1 am capt1ve c0unt1ng search1ng
               a cl0ck with a sec0nd hand stuck

And this is its ending:

brown life is an unbroken bearing of the weight and hollow of the active
absence of brown life.

Then too.  The whole premise.  It could have come off gimmicky, this idea.  This stating of what, after that first second it takes to sink in, is obvious: the fact that even this page—every page—is white.  And yet.  There is that first second it takes to sink in.

Weeks later, for a blog post, you are re-reading the book.  Only then you notice, consider, think about what it means, that across all its pages, almost all its pages, even the poems that continue from one page to another...  The top half, and sometimes more than the top half, of almost every single page is taken up.  By white space.

[Acquired in mid-December 2020.]
[Read pretty much all the way through and immediately, in Florence.]

Audre Lorde | The Cancer Journals
Audre Lorde | The Cancer Journals

By now it’s clear I’m a disciple, and therefore it is perhaps entirely unsurprising, how much of this slim and devastating book I have marked up.  (In the margins of page 26, I have written in all-caps: so much truth that you must underline everywhere...)

Of course there is much to mark up, in any work by Lorde but in this one especially, for this is the one about how your silence will not protect you.  This is the one that spawned and inspired the Audre Lorde Questionnaire to Oneself.  That questionnaire is a gift and a flint with which I light up many of my mornings.  But the rest of the paragraph from which it comes is even more combustible:

What are the words you do not have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?  Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears.  Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself, a Black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours?

There is so much more.  I spent all of the morning re-reading, and there was so much more that I went and wrote a whole blog post.  And even then, even after, I have not gotten to the bit when she talks of the falseness among women these days, calling itself goddess-worship or “the way”false because too cheaply bought and little understood.  I did not get to where she tells herself that I will never be a doctor and I will never be a deep-sea diver.  I did not get to where she is learning to speak my pieces, to inject into the living world my convictions of what I think is necessary and what I think is important without concern (of the enervating kind) for whether or not it is understood, tolerated, correct or heard before...  (The world will not stop if I make a mistake.)

And everything, fucking everything, she says about breasts and identity and prostheses and profit and cancer and commerce and women and beauty and power and difference and action and invisibility and strength and knowing and selfhood.  I am talking here about the need for every woman to live a considered life.  Everything.

But this.  If I don’t get to anything else, I must get to this:

In this disastrous time, when little girls are still being stitched shut between their legs, when victims of cancer are urged to court more cancer in order to be attractive to men, when 12-year-old Black boys are shot down in the street at random by uniformed men who are cleared of any wrong-doing, when ancient and honorable citizens scavenge for food in garbage pails, and the growing answer to all this is media hype or surgical lobotomy; when daily gruesome murders of women from coast to coast no longer warrant mention in The N.Y. Times, when grants to teach retarded children are cut in favor of more billion dollar airplanes, when 900 people commit mass suicide rather than face life in america, and we are told it is the job of the poor to stem inflation; what depraved monster could possibly be always happy?

It’s a single question.  It’s a hundred forty-four words long.  It was written in 1979.

[Acquired in November 2020.]
[Read in November/December 2020, in Florence.]

Fatimah Asghar | If They Come For Us
Fatimah Asghar | If They Come For Us

Even if your grandfather never wrote persian poetry on glasses (maybe.  you can’t remember.  you made it up.  someone lied...), even if you cannot read from a compass of brown & gold & blood...  This book is a ride on the back of a blue-purple bird-of-heaven-and-heck.  Not only for feeling but also—maybe even most fantastically, fanatically, frantically—for form.  There are poems as ghazals and poems in prose.  A partially-upside-down poem and a list-of-things-pulled-from-a-pussy poem.  Poem as crossword puzzle and poem as a Bingo card.  Poem as grade school grammar exercise (or poem as Mad Lib).  Poem as cheat-sheet, poem as film treatment and poem as floor plan.

How else to say I am here?

These are poems that feel like corporeal bodies.

you’re a daughter until they bury your mother.  until you’re not invited to your father’s funeral.  you’re a virgin until you get too drunk.  you’re muslim until you’re not a virgin.  you’re pakistani until they start throwing acid.  you’re muslim until it’s too dangerous.  you’re safe until you’re alone.  you’re american until the towers fall.  until there’s a border on your back.

Some of them are hairy and some of them wax where (good) Muslim women wax.  Some of them are bleeding one way and some another.  Some of them are wearing too much kajol and some of them have left their dupatta in the car.  Some of them take off their shoes at weddings, never mind the glass on the ground from the broken bangles.

how many poems must you write to convince yourself
you have a family?  everyone leaves & you end up the stranger.

Some of them smell of jasmine and some of them smell of paan and some of them smell, to me anyway, of that exact combination of rain and sea and rickshaw exhaust, there where the car slows down, by Boat Basin.

Home is the first grave.

[Acquired in November 2020.]
[Read in what felt like one breath, in November, in Florence.]

Harriet Lerner | Why Won’t You Apologize?
Harriet Lerner | Why Won’t You Apologize?

I know, I know.  This is a self-help book.  But lucky for me (because I usually find self-help books shallow, mouldy, and magnificently annoying), this is an actually intelligent and—thank heaven—intelligently written self-help book.  You can tell the author actually reads good writing for pleasure, and you can tell she doesn’t think her shit will fix anything and everything.  Perhaps most importantly, you can tell she doesn’t believe in a world (let alone try to sell you one) whose meaning is dictated by happiness, positivity and that breathlessly North American obsession with brightsiding...  (Argh.)

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she’s also Ben Lerner’s mother.  (There’s a conversation she recounts having with Ben as an argumentative teenager, which is quite possibly my favorite conversation of the book...  At least when it comes to understanding that love and forgiveness do not always—cannot always—intersect.) So along with the usual suspects that seem always to get cited in these things (cue Gary Chapman and his 5 languages for everything/whatever—sigh), there are also some wonderful and writerly others: like Claudia Rankine (for something from Citizen), like Maggie Nelson (for something from The Argonauts), and like Roxane Gay.

Also.  Sometimes you read a book not because you need to read it, but because someone else does.  So at least one of you... will understand some things that need to be understood.

For example, that an apology doesn’t always mean reconciliation.  [...] Not everything we break can be fixed.

For example, that the word forgive is much like the word respect.  It can’t be commanded or demanded or forced, or gifted for no reason...  I know full well the firsthand experience of coming to a place of empathy and understanding for the very person who has injured me and never apologized for a particular action, never faced up to her insensitive or low-integrity behavior.  [But] the word forgiveness is not a word I use to describe this compassionate or accepting place that I may or may not come to when I feel wronged by someone who can’t get it, who is too defensive to take in what I am saying, and who will never genuinely feel that they have something to apologize for.

(Italics mine.)

Elsewhere, and a little further: Suggesting to someone that they forgive can leave the hurt party feeling more emotionally unsteady and betrayed all over again.

(In the margin, there’s a someone who has written, “JFC—so I am NOT crazy.”  That someone was me.)

Elsewhere, and maybe most of all: When it comes to our close relationships, I agree with [...] Janis Abrahms Spring: “You don’t restore your humanity when you forgive an unapologetic offender; he restores his humanity when he works to earn your forgiveness.”

And lots more, having to do with lots else, besides forgiveness.

For example, the idea that when people suffer, they often suffer twice, first because they have lived through something painful, and second because a key person [or several] in their lives doesn’t want to hear about it, or doesn’t want to hear all of it.

(A page or two later, from a mother who had done just that to her daughter, but had finally figured it out: I didn’t bring it up because I thought if you weren’t bringing it up, I shouldn’t bring it up.  That was a mistake.  I left you alone with it.  I’m so sorry.)

For example, the idea that, in order to offer a serious apology, you need the inner strength to allow yourself to feel vulnerable.  You need to be in touch with both your competence and your limitations.

For example, and speaking of competence: When we tolerate rudeness in any relationship—if doing so becomes habitual rather than a rare event—we erode our own self-regard and diminish the other person by not reaching for their competence to do better.

(Here I think of my brother, and of a cousin in Canada.  Of brown men especially.  Of my mother’s family, especially...)

For example, and speaking of tolerance: The courage and clarity to define our bottom line, which includes our needs and the limits of our tolerance, is at the heart of having both a relationship and a self.  Doing so is ultimately an act of kindness and respect.

(Here I think of my mother.)

For example, and speaking of the self: The other person’s willingness to own up to harmful deeds has nothing to do with how much she or he does or doesn’t love you.  Rather, the capacity to take responsibility, feel empathy and remorse, and offer a meaningful apology rests on how much self-love and self-respect that person has available.  We don’t have the power to bestow these traits on anyone but ourselves.

(Here...  Well.  Here, I’m just trying to listen.)

[Acquired in July 2020.]
[Read mostly in November 2020, in Florence.]

Toi Derricotte | The Black Notebooks
Toi Derricotte | The Black Notebooks

For her thoughts on black–white friendship:

There are so few friendships between whites and blacks in which the people are really themselves.  Even when white people try, they are often operating on stereotypes, and though the black person might want to accept them, the only way to break the stereotype is to tell the truth, which causes pain.  A black person and a white person are not just two individuals who have to decide whether they like each other, but representatives carrying huge expectations, beliefs that they must scale like dangerous mountains, trying to reach each other.

For explaining, thank-goodness-goddamnit, why it’s white people first, foremost, and especially, who need to call out, interrupt, and talk to each other, in difficult and (gasp) uncomfortable ways, about racism:

That’s when I realized that it is much easier for white people to confront racism than it is for blacks.  Because no matter what a white person says or does about racism, they are still white, which gives them the privilege of being listened to without already having been judged as doubly unreliable—unreliable because they are black and, therefore, foolish, and unreliable because they are merely acting defensively, defending their own race.

(And for saying out loud too, what I think about people who can do this, and then don’t: She said for me to escape the pain while others are not able to made me a betrayer.)

But for so much else—for example about memory:

I had always thought memory accrued in a chronological fashion.  [But this] memory had occurred because of something that had happened in the future.  It made me realize that memory itself, rather than being absolute, linear, must be a continuous and liquid process, rather like the process that keeps the balance of crystals in a solution.

I think that memory—they used to say that language is on the side of the country with the biggest navy—is in the service of the deepest psychic need.

And for example, about the self:

Now, after fifty years, I understand the importance of finding and inventing those internal mirrors in which we see ourselves as sacred.

For example, on the telling of truths:

It seemed that it was so important to keep up appearances, to not let people know there were problems, as if problems meant we were failures.

I think that what we don’t tell others, we often lie to ourselves about.

And for example, on the not-telling, too:

Perhaps against everything I have learned as a writer, there is something I have learned as a child of the oppressed—there is a secret place that, once articulated, becomes banal and squalid.

There are those who say, “Speak the unspeakable,” “Tell the truth, it is the writer’s job to say,” but it occurs to me that any held reality retains a power, that perhaps silence is a way of protecting what it is not yet time to bring to light.

For so much else, ancora.  Not only to do with race and color and whiteness.  But also, to do with friendship and love and connection and knowing—the knowing of others and the knowing of our selves.  (And the knowing of our others.)

And all of it, all of it offered up with an integrity of thinking—of the mind and of the heart—that I cannot remember feeling, so palpably, in anything else I have ever read.

(For the idea then, finally, that held complexities are resolution—perhaps even healing—are form.)

[Acquired in September 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in October 2020, in and after Bolzano.]

Nella Larsen | Quicksand & Passing
Nella Larsen | Quicksand & Passing

I had already read Passing, almost exactly a year earlier, when I’d taken it with us to that one-and-only vacation for the year, in Sainte Colombe.  And so I only wanted one of the two novels in this double-edition...  But if you have spent any time in the English-language sections of bookstores in Italy, you know the odds of coming upon a book that is neither a bestseller nor a classic (in the mainstream sense anyway...).  That is not only by a woman writer from the 1920s but a Black woman writer from the 1920s.  In short, beggars, choosers, etc.

Also in short, I think Passing is the better, or anyway stronger, of the two works.  Some day if I’m able to go backwards through this project and catch up on some of the books I read before I began it, I’ll tell you more.  (In the meantime of course, you can just read it.  For it is slim and quick and pointed like a bullet—softly burnished and quietly, quietly explosive.)

But still, Quicksand is worth reading, if for no other reason than to realize that if we’re talking these days about whether it’s possible to write or read or anyway enjoy narratives that reject the so-called requirements of narrative...  (The idea for example, that the journey must not only have a destination, but must come to it...  The idea that the conflict must not only be definable, but resolvable...)  And if we’re struggling these days to understand the intersection of race and gender and other things...  (The idea for example, that those other things are not only nameable, but describable...).  Then Nella Larsen, in 1928, was way ahead of us.

Way ahead too, in many other ways:

She hated to admit that money was the most serious difficulty.  Knowing full well that it was important, she nevertheless rebelled at the unalterable truth that it could influence her actions, block her desires.  A sordid necessity to be grappled with.  With Helga it was almost a superstition that to concede to money its importance magnified its power.

Some day you’ll learn that lies, injustice, and hypocrisy are a part of every ordinary community.  Most people achieve a sort of protective immunity, a kind of callousness, toward them.  If they didn’t, they couldn’t endure.

Somewhere, within her, in a deep recess, crouched discontent.  She began to lose confidence in the fullness of her life, the glow began to fade from her conception of it.  As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable.  She went through moments of overwhelming anguish.  She felt shut in, trapped.

Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place?

And in some other ways, well...  It’s not so much that she was way ahead of us.  More that—how to say it?  The vague sense you get, as you’re reading...

...because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them.  They had good sense and they had good taste.  They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste.

...that actually, it’s us.  We haven’t moved.

[Acquired in October 2020, from Feltrinelli.]
[Read in October 2020, in/around Bolzano.]

Elizabeth Strout | Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout | Anything Is Possible

There is that bit, early on, in which Tommy Guptill remembers his older brother—who had been in World War II, who had been at the camps when they were being emptied—he thought how his brother had returned from the war a different man; his marriage ended, his children disliked him.  Not long before his brother died, he told Tommy about what he had seen in the camps, and how he and the others had the job of taking the townspeople through them.  They had somehow taken a group of women from the town through the camps to show them what had been right there, and Tommy’s brother said that although some of the women wept, some of them put their chins up, and looked angry, as if they refused to be made to feel bad.

At the time it made me think of that white friend of Claudia Rankine’s—the one in Just Us.  The one who just didn’t want to:

Maybe of interest to you and important to me: I know I shrink, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little, from scenes where I’m asked, personally or generally, to feel bad as a white person—where, whatever else is being asked, I’m also being asked to feel shame, guilt, to do penance, to stand corrected, to sit down chastised.

At the time I had not yet read Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks—that would come later in the month—but if I had it would it have made me think of this:

What happens in a classroom when diversity begins to be expressed?  It would be nice if suddenly everything got better, but in reality this does not happen.  [...] The reactions of white students to the writings of the one or two writers of color in my undergraduate and graduate writing classes vary, but often an entirely different state of receptivity is in effect.  Often they feel isolated, excluded, bombarded by experiences and words they don’t understand.  They have described a feeling of distance from the poems, feeling defensive and determined not to be made to feel guilty, responsible, or ashamed.

Look at that.  Look again.

They have described a feeling of distance from the poems, feeling defensive and determined not to be made to feel guilty, responsible, or ashamed.

At the time I thought too, or anyway tried to remember that line of Lorde’s, that Crystal Fleming had quoted in How to Be Less Stupid About Race, from Lorde’s essay on “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”:

I have seen situations where white women hear a racist remark, resent what has been said, become filled with fury, and remain silent because they are afraid.  That unexpressed anger lies within them like an undetonated device, usually to be hurled at the first woman of Color who talks about racism.

At the time I had not yet seen that big book of photographs by Margaret Bourke-White, lying abandoned on the table next to ours at Todo Modo.  Had not picked it up and leafed through it, thinking to pass the few minutes before Davide reappeared with more wine than we really needed.  Had not come upon that picture (but be warned before clicking, for the love of everything be warned).

I know these things are not the quite same things.  And that the ways in which they are not quite the same are ways that are very, very different.  And yet.

And yet.

[Acquired in October 2020, from Feltrinelli.]
[Read in October 2020, in/around Bolzano.]

James Baldwin | The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin | The Fire Next Time

I read Dark Days last year (bought, of all places, from the bookstore at the Palazzo Strozzi... of all times, after Marina Abramovic...).  And I read I Am Not Your Negro the year before (bought, of all places, from the bookstore at Al Ghurair Center in Dubai...).  But for all serious intents and purposes, I had for some time intended for this to be my first “proper” Baldwin.  And so with a little nudging from Carlotta, it was.

And so what to say?  Where to begin with all the examples of how, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, he refused to hold anyone’s hand?  How instead he makes you take that hand of yours and turn it over and hold it up to the light to look at, hard.

Like in that line I had already and only just encountered for the first time, in Roy’s Azadi: And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.

Like this: The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.

And this: Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.  To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

And like this: White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany.  They did not know that they could act that way.  But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded...

Also.  All the things that are still, and everywhere (not only in the US), and so resoundingly—true:

How [we] are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels.  Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.

How [in] any event, the sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to deal with hard problems.

How [the] word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free.

(When I read how Europe has not yet left Africa, especially...  Here and now in 2020...  It is hard not to think of a certain grand and far-reaching international development organization, and the entire premise upon which its bloated and heaving, magnificently well-intentioned machinery rests...)

I love the very idea of a letter from a region in one’s mind.  And I am taken too—intrigued—by so many other, more specific ideas.  That it is the innocence that constitutes the crime.  That the impossible is the least that one can demand.

That people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.  

And perhaps finally, that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.

[Acquired in late September.]
[Read through late September and early October (in tandem with Carlotta...).]

Jenny Offill | Weather
Jenny Offill | Weather

How to explain this book?  In trying, I said to Andrew that it’s a bit like Renata Adler’s Speedboat, except minus the speed.  Also, while it looks more fragmentary, visually anyway, than Speedboat, really it feels less so.  You can feel the form of it, both clearly and yet inexplicably.  The way a Sunday of puttering alone around the house still feels like a day.  The way life, when viewed without the rose-tinted glasses of cause, effect, and beginnings-that-lead-to-endings, of narrative and meaning and story—all of that...  The way life in all its formlessness too, feels like a form.

It reminded me a little also, of Lerner’s 10:04.  For the ropy tenderness and empathy that seems to breathe outward from each page, like the echo of a blue note.  But also for at least one specific detail.  In Lerner, there is that moment with the Manhattan skyline at night (and what a moment, what a Mona Lisa painting of a moment it is...), when he feels the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I looked at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers.  It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurability of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed.  Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community.  Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity...

For whatever reason (maybe because it really does feel like a great painting, and so you remember that particular detail, like the face of the small dog looking out at you, like the curve of the angel’s ankle...), you remember those trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water.

And so, early on in Offill’s Weather there is a sense of repercussion, or of call-and-response:

So now we have extra bread.  I eat three pieces while my brother tells me a story about his NA meeting.  A woman stood up and started ranting about antidepressants.  What upset her most was that people were not disposing of them properly.  They tested worms in the city sewers and found they contained high concentrations of Paxil and Prozac.

When birds ate these worms, they stayed closer to home, made more elaborate nests, but appeared unmotivated to mate.  “But were they happier?” I ask him.  “Did they get more done in a given day?”

Elsewhere, an (other) example of how she makes a kind of magic, out of saying things without saying them:

After the election, Ben makes many small wooden things.  One to organize our utensils, one to keep the trash can from wobbling.  He spends hours on them.  “There, I fixed it,” he says.

[Acquired in early October 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read mostly through bouts of insomnia (related to climate change, kind of...), in early October.]

Victoria Chang | OBIT
Victoria Chang | OBIT

I would tell you about all the ways in which these poems define and undo the defining of grief.  Like the shape and nothingness-around-it, of each poem on each page.  A box with everything you can put in it, and everything again, that you cannot.

(Once I started trying, I realized how hard it was to explain and how it wasn’t even one thing I was trying to explain.  Grief scatters.  It’s like smoke, it gets in your hair, your clothes, everywhere, but you can’t touch it...)

The way so many of these poems begin on my birthday.  (The way my birthday is always a week after my father being gone.)  The way this is about a so-called fully grown human being, contending with what she knows every so-called fully grown human being must contend with, if their parent is a lucky parent.  (A parent who gets to die before their child.)  The way her contending brings back my contending.

Approval—died    on   August   3,   2015
at the age  of  44.   It  died   at 7:07 a.m.
How much money will you get was my
mother’s  response  to  everything.  She
used  to  wrap  muffins  in  a  napkin  at
the buffet  and  put  them  in  her purse.
I never saw  the  muffins  again.  What I
would  do  to  see  those  muffins  again,
the thin moist  thread  as she pulled the
muffin apart. A photo shows my mother
holding my  hand.  I  was  nine.  I  never
touched her  hand  again.  Until  the day
before she died.  I  love so many things I
have never touched:  the moon, a shiver,
my mother's heart.  Her  fingers felt like
rough  branches  covered  with plastic.  I
trimmed  her nails one  by one  while the
morphine   kept  her  asleep.   Her   nails
weren’t  small  moons   or  golden  doors
to somewhere, but  ten  last  words I was
cutting off.

All the ways.

[Acquired in August 2020.]
[Begun in August with the Sealey Challenge; finished in September with the Poetry Foundation.]

Arundhati Roy | Azadi
Arundhati Roy | Azadi

The God of Small Things didn’t do it for me (though there will always be those lines about what careless words can do—lines I can imagine leaving in some rooms I have lived in, like a forgotten earring or a clutch of keys to houses whose locks were long ago changed...), but for her essays I have loved Arundhati Roy since I first read her, in 2003.  In January of that year there was “Confronting Empire,” and later that spring there was the one-two punch of “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy (Buy One, Get One Free),” and “Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates.”  Users of Yahoo! email, do you remember the Briefcase?  A kind of clunky precursor to today’s clouds and drives?  I saved those three essays in my Yahoo! Briefcase (along with that famous/infamous piece by Sontag in the first New Yorker after September 11th, the one about courage and cowardice, consequences and concealment, democracy and drivel...), because they felt like pages from a manual for equipment that I had until then been using with a kind of shrugged-on complacency.  Like an expensive camera you keep on auto-focus for years, and then one day someone shows you how to sharpen the parts of the image that happen to lie outside its center.  Suddenly, a way to see a different picture.

Anyway.  There is much here, that feels like it builds on that kind of manual.  And while the essays seem mostly to be talking about India, really, they are talking about everywhere.  For example, the ways in which religious fundamentalism and unbridled free-market fundamentalism can waltz arm in arm, like lovers...  For example, the idea that national pride has more to do with hate than love.  For example, the appalling logic of Hindu nationalists, when they explain that Muslims have so many homelands, but Hindus only have India. (Where have I heard something like that before...?)

For example too, the idea that today’s fascism, and the fake history of Hindu nationalism [or really, any kind of nationalism], rests on a deeper foundation of another, apparently more acceptable, more sophisticated set of fake histories that elide the stories of caste, of women, and a range of other genders — and of how those stories intersect below the surface of the grand narrative of class and capital.

(Italics mine.)

[Acquired in September 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in September 2020, in Florence—including at Ristorante Goong, on ice...]

Audre Lorde | Your Silence Will Not Protect You
Audre Lorde | Your Silence Will Not Protect You

I didn’t need to buy this book.  Almost every essay is in Sister Outsider, and Sister Outsider has been a kind of bible on the shelf now, for some time.  But I discovered that this UK edition has an introduction by Sara Ahmed.  And thanks to some recent conversations with Erica, I have lately developed a fellow-feminist kind of crush on Sara Ahmed...  Besides being awesome (as I have noted below, and elsewhere, and elsewhere again), she is also a fellow Lorde-lover.

Also thanks to some recent conversations with another Sara entirely (who has been reading this edition—and yes, I know that’s not really a reason...).  And finally too, thanks to that talk with Roxane Gay at the 92nd Street Y, in which Mahogany L. Browne performs “A Litany for Survival,” and Porsha Olayiwola performs “Power.”  This UK edition, unlike Sister Outsider, has some of Lorde’s poetry too—like “Litany,” and like “Power.”  And so it was enough.  I bought it.

I read the introduction by Sara Ahmed—and it was good.

Each time you write or you speak you are putting yourself into a world that is shared.

To speak from anger is to bring something into existence...

To write is to create something that will have its own life; writing as afterlife.

When we speak, we open the possibility of a return address.

Reading her work is a way of speaking too.

And I read the poems—and Lorde were they good.

When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
until morning
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.

[Acquired in August 2020.]
[Read in September 2020, in Florence.]

Ben Lerner | 10:04
Ben Lerner | 10:04

It seems Ben Lerner is the only living white male writer I’m able to read these days.  (I had to add in “living” because I can read Rilke.  Thank heaven, I can always read Rilke...)  I think the reason, really, is that Ben Lerner writes kind of like the opposite of say, everyone in this book.  How to explain this oppositeness?  Here’s an example:

While I stirred the vegetables I realized with slowly dawning alarm that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked by myself for another person—I could not, in fact, ever remember having done so.  I’d cooked with people plenty, usually acting as a dazzlingly incompetent sous chef for friends or family.  On various occasions I’d said to a woman I was interested in, “I would invite you to dinner, but I can’t cook,” at which point I would hope she’d say, “I’m a great cook,” so I could ask her to come over and teach me; then we’d get drunk in the kitchen while I displayed what I hoped was my endearing clumsiness, never learning anything. [...] I simply could not recall a single instance in which I had by myself constructed a meal, however rudimentary, for another human being.  The closest memory I could summon was of scrambling eggs on Mother’s or Father’s Day as a child, but the uncelebrated parent, as well as my brother, always assisted me.  Conversely, there was simply no end to the number of meals I could recall other people making for me, thousands upon thousands of meals, a quantity of food that would have to be measured in tons, dating from my mother’s milk to the present; just that week Aaron had roasted a chicken for our monthly dinner; Alena had made some kind of delicious trio of Middle Eastern salads the night before; in neither meal had I lent a hand, although I’d cursorily offered. [...] Surely there were instances I was forgetting, but even assuming there were, they were exceedingly rare.

I would like to say that, at the very least, I resolved to cook henceforth for my friends, to be a producer and not a consumer alone of those substances necessary for sustenance and growth within my immediate community.  I would like to say that [...] I was disturbed by the contradiction between my avowed political materialism and my inexperience with this brand of making, of poiesis, but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism. [...] Realizing my selfishness just led to more selfishness; that is, I felt lonely, felt sorry for myself, despite the fact that I was so often cooked for, because, as I stood there in my little kitchen stirring vegetables, stood there at the age of thirty-three, I was crushed to realize nobody depended on me for this fundamental mode of care, of nurturing, nourishing.  “Don’t leave me,” Nina Simone begged in French, and, for the first time I could remember—whether or not the desire was a non sequitur—I wanted a child, wanted one badly.

I loved this book because it has so many moments like that.  Moments that are at once both intellectually virtuoso and deeply, vertiginously human.  Moments in which the experience of looking (in this scene, at the self; in other scenes, at others), is defined by empathy and vulnerability—a not-knowing...  A kind of osmotic receptiveness (Lerner might call it proprioceptiveness) or liminal permeability—to people and to the world and to time—that transcends the traditional idea of ego (and especially of the male ego—toxic masculinity, I’m looking at you...) that feels achingly rare.  You get why that Whitman quote is everywhere—for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.  And yet he out-Whitmans Whitman in a way, for this is not even a song of the self—the self-as-universe...  Really, it feels like a humming.

Also the metafictionality.  I loved it for that, too.  Also the hilariousness.  Also the scene in the co-op, with Noor.  (Also the co-op itself.  Carlotta!  He does the co-op!  He mentions the nannies!)  Also (speaking of the co-op), the bit about the new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety...  Also the empathy.  Also the hilariousness.

[Acquired in September 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in September 2020, in Florence.]

Sara Ahmed | Living a Feminist Life
Sara Ahmed | Living a Feminist Life

In preparation for an eventual paragraph to put here, I started jotting down some thoughts on this book, and some favorite quotes.  Along the way, I wound up with a blog post on self-care (and lots else), and a blog post on the conveniently double-edged sword-and-standard of (mostly) white exceptionalism (and lots else), and (at last count), some seven pages of collected quotes, both from the book and from an array of interviews with Ahmed herself.  I’m not even close to being done, and I won’t be for a long while.  But even if I were, I would not know how to choose what to put here, in a way that didn’t end up giving you a third of the book (and lots else).

So instead I will give you this.  It is not representative of the book, except it kind of is.  It is not about feminism per se, except it absolutely is.  It is not my favorite bit, except sometimes, it is:

I do not think it is good to be too confident in one’s decisions and, thus, to be too confident in the shape of the life you live, a life that has acquired its shape because of decisions you have already made along the way.  I think it is good to think of life as always potentially in crisis, to keep asking the question: how to live?  [There] is value just in this; the value of opening up life to a decision, of realizing that life is open to a decision.

Also, two quotes on reading books exactly like this one.  First this:

A world can flood once we have let it in, once we have unlocked the door of our own resistance.  Feminism too can become a flooding experience: one book read that leads to another, a trail that leads you to find feminism, more and more feminism, new words, concepts, arguments, models: patriarchy, phallocentrism, rape culture, the sex-gender system.  In finding feminism, you are finding out about the many ways that feminists have tried to make sense, already, of the experiences you had, before you had them; experiences that left you feeling all alone are the experiences that lead you to others. [...] I will always remember that feeling; a sense that there are others like you out there, that you are not on your own, that you were not on your own.  Your own difficult history is written out in words that are sent out.  I often think of reading feminist books as like making friends, realizing that others have been here before.

And then this:

For those of us who found feminist company in books, I think it is helpful to ask ourselves what we want from those books.  We can want different things, of course, and we do not always know what we want until we find it.  Sometimes it is a matter of what finds you.  I think of companion books as those books that make me feel less lonely, and also those that allow me to meet myself in a different way.

You can read the introduction over at Duke University Press.  It is f*cking good.

[Acquired in late July 2020—thank you EM, for putting me (back) on to Sara Ahmed...!]
[Read mostly in August 2020 (alongside the Sealey Challenge); finished in September 2020.]

Ijeoma Oluo | So You Want to Talk About Race
Ijeoma Oluo | So You Want to Talk About Race

Oh no, not another race book!  (I know.  You’d think this was something important or something.)  At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to get this one (I read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility last August, and had just begun Crystal M. Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race).  But I’ve seen how often Oluo’s book comes up in lists of resources and recommended texts for better understanding race, racism and white supremacy, and unlike some people (sigh), I get that these lists and articles are written by people who know and understand much more about all this, than I do.  I get that I’m nowhere near done with knowing what there is to know.

(Which reminds me, small world that this can sometimes seem, of a quote from MLK in Fleming’s book: It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.  Exactly.)

Anyway.  Those people who made those lists and wrote those articles?  They were right.  In fact, this book may be (for most people) the best first book to read on racism and white supremacy.  It feels slightly lighter and more accessible than Fleming’s (which is a little heavier on theory, and a little tougher in its talk too, perhaps...), and while it does ask the (white) reader to do some ‘work,’ it is not nearly as demanding in this sense, as I think White Fragility might be for many folks.  Finally, the layout is nothing if not straightforward: every chapter addresses a likely question / area of understanding, from tone policing to police brutality, from privilege to the prison pipeline, and from intersectionality to the “N” word.  Really, she could have called it Racism for Dummies.  But something tells me that might not have helped the way it does with all the other Dummies titles...  Huh.

[Acquired in August 2020.]
[Read in August 2020, in Florence.]

Crystal M. Fleming | How to Be Less Stupid About Race
Crystal M. Fleming | How to Be Less Stupid About Race

You know that feeling (if you’re a person of color in a white world), when you wish you could drop a pointed-but-ostensibly-not-at-all-pointed quote in your email signature, as a way of telling a well-intentioned (and of course, impeccably progressive) white friend what you would really like to tell them, about the sometimes rather magnificent gaps in their understanding of racism, whiteness, and white supremacy?  This book has plenty of those quotes.  Enough that if I had to pick just one, I’d have to pick at least four:

In order to oppose racism, we have to actually be concerned with oppression writ large.  This means drawing critical connections between the plight of people of color and the poor in the United States and the broader struggle for freedom and tolerance on our small planet.  It means fighting ethnic and religious bigotry throughout Asia and standing in solidarity with the Roma in Europe as well as African migrants.  It means denouncing the immoral violence of anti-Semitism as well as Israel’s immoral destruction of the Palestinian people.  It means taking a stand against ethnocentrism and genocide in Rwanda and standing up against antiblack racism in Brazil, Latin America, and the Arab world.  As antiracists, we have to cultivate concern and compassion for the suffering marginalized people in our own communities and on the other side of the world.

Have you ever wondered how people lived with slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching [or, I might add, with Hitler, Mussolini, and the Manifesto of Race...] but looked the other way?  Look around right now.  This is how they did it.  They did it by going on with their lives.  They did it by being polite, not rocking the boat.

Let the record reflect: white supremacy persists, to a great degree, because of white folks’ refusal to aggressively challenge other whites on their racism.

So, white people: y’all need to team up with your antiracist homies, leverage your social influence, stand up against racist behavior, and be willing to make your racist family members, friends, and/or colleagues uncomfortable.  Even more to the point: white folks need to make a proactive decision to do this work, rather than rely on people of color (who are already subject to the terror of racial violence) to pick up your slack and carry the burden of dismantling oppression.

Also: interpersonal and institutional racism are connected.

Read the books.  Do the work.  Just, please.  Do the work.

[Acquired in August 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in August 2020, in Florence.]

Beth Ann Fennelly | Heating and Cooling
Beth Ann Fennelly | Heating and Cooling

Early in July I started ‘going’ to more poetry readings (because what better for an introvert, than a poetry reading for which you don’t have to get dressed, don’t have to make small talk, and don’t have to perform your interest, interestingness, and sociability).  And there was this one, in which Beth Ann Fennelly read a piece from her new(ish) book of what she calls micro-memoirs...  And this piece, it made some gears grind to a halt inside me, in a way that—whatever you call it, micro-memoir or flash or prose poetry or poetry too—it’s these short, shaped forms that know how to do it.  Shaped to fit in your cupped hands.  Small enough to carry in a pocket, if your dress has a pocket.

The Visitation

I remember being in the car on the way to my sister’s surprise funeral.  In the backseat, I think.  I can’t imagine who was driving.  At a stop sign my head swiveled toward a flicker in the roadside greenery: a fox, poking its snout from between two bushes. I thought, or chose to think, That is my sister. That is my sister, come back in animal form to tell me it’s okay.  She’s okay.  I’ll be okay.

But it was not okay.  She was not okay.  I would not be okay.  I would not be okay for so long that when okay arrived it couldn’t place me.  It looked right past the veil of flickering leaves, my long red snout, my gloved paws swiping tears into my little black mouth.

(The other poets were amazing too.)

[Acquired in August 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in August 2020, in Florence.]

June Eric-Udorie (Editor) | Can We All Be Feminists?
June Eric-Udorie | Can We All Be Feminists?

It’s been a year and half since I started my little reading project on intersectional feminism.  And I have to say that this one book delivered on more fronts than many of the books I’ve read so far—maybe not so much in depth, but very much in terms of the sheer breadth of perspectives.  The essays vary widely in style (and a few are not as well-written / well-shaped as the others), but if you want some truly intersectional bang for your anti-capitalist buck, this is a starting point for all kinds of isms across all kinds of bodies—black and brown (including from Pakistani to Punjabi and beyond...), deviant and disabled, trans and migrant and fluid and fat.  I’ve underlined and asterisked all over this book, but in terms of a (very random) sampling:

On the plurality of feminism: There’s no explicit platform for feminism because it’s an idea, ownerless and atomized, based on the observation of one specific, persistent source of imbalance in a stunningly unfair world.

On intersectionality: Asking that feminism be intersectional is not asking it to do anything other than make sense.

On abortion: Folks who believe that abortion is permissible in the case of rape, but not permissible in the case of accidental pregnancy from consensual sex, are not actually condemning abortion; rather the moral axis here is the sexual behavior—the blameworthiness—of the pregnant person.

On beauty: Public policing of Beauty isn’t always obvious, but it is constant.  Its threat haunts every plan, every outfit, every decision you make before stepping out in public.

On fat: A good body can be permitted to carry weight, unlike a beautiful body, but this must be in moderation, carried in seamless proportion and coupled with hyperfemininity.

On the trans toilet-wars: Use of bathrooms and changing rooms is predominantly about safety, and which bodies are deserving of safety—and which aren’t.

On cultural appropriation: [It is] ignorance that leaves people believing, unthinkingly, that cultural exchange happens in a fair context and on a level playing field...

And on the everyday rollercoaster of being a nonwhite minority among your white friends: [That instant in which] whiteness becomes aggressive and hostile to our way of being.  One moment, it’s a normal conversation, and in the next, the person we’re with has revealed the limits of their understanding.

[Acquired in August 2019.]
[Read on and off from January 2020 through to July 2020.]

John Berger | and our faces, my heart, brief as photos
John Berger | and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

For his talk of poetry: In all poetry words are a presence before they are a means of communication.

For his talk of time: The deeper the experience of a moment, the greater the accumulation of experience.  This is why the moment is lived as longer. [...] The lived durée is not a question of length but of depth or density.  Proust understood this.  (So did Rovelli, I think to myself.)

And for his talk, finally, of train stations: Before the railways were built, what took the place of stations in people’s dreams?  Perhaps cliffs or wells or a blacksmith’s forge?  Like a tram or a bus this question is a way of approaching the railway station.  (I think of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.  And Neruda’s Book of Questions.)

For his talk, too, of Caravaggio.  And for the future of that parcel.

[Acquired in June 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in June and July 2020, in Florence.]

Angela Y. Davis | Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
Angela Y. Davis | Freedom Is a Constant Struggle

Some things in this book—like all the books from 2019’s birthday crop on blackness, whiteness, and wrongness—have felt like salvos.  Some other things, like salve.

Like understanding incarceration and detention as ways in which the state consolidates its inability and refusal to address the most pressing social problems of this era.  Like understanding the need for collective and community-based change, at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms.  Like understanding the tyranny of the universal (and the abstract).

And any book that describes marriage (in passing, mind you) as a bourgeois hetero-patriarchal institution, and as a capitalist institution designed to guarantee the distribution [or rather the lack thereof] of property... is my kind of book.

Still, this was sometimes hard to read—hard anyway to finish—through a June (and July) like 2020 has had.  But also urgent, necessary, long overdue.  One of those books (and there are at least a couple more, from that birthday crop), that I wish I could press into the hands of my wonderful white friends and say, read this.  Because we cannot go on as usual.  We cannot pivot the center.  We cannot be moderate.

[Acquired in August 2019.]
[Read on and off from August 2019 through to July 2020 (in tandem with Carlotta...).]

Fernando Pessoa | The Book of Disquiet
Fernando Pessoa | The Book of Disquiet

Among the blurbs at the beginning, a reviewer from the Daily Telegraph speaks of exhilarating lugubriousness.  This feels perfect, and yet there is so much more, so much quotable, so much that I have underlined and starred and squiggled across the multitude of mirrored and othered selves that make up this book...  On every page, something that reaches out and makes a wave in you.

Like this: I enjoy using words.  Or rather: I enjoy making words work.  For me words are tangible bodies, visible sirens, sensualitues made flesh.  (I think of Humpty Dumpty, holding forth with Alice...  “They’ve a temper some of them—particularly verbs...”)

Like this: Each thing is the intersection of three lines which, together, shape that thing: a quantity of material, the way in which we interpret it and the atmosphere in which it exists.  (I think of content, form, and context.  Also, of everything.)

And like this: Some people have one great dream in life which they fail to fulfil.  Others have no dream at all and fail to fulfil even that.  (I think of you and me and the universe of people that may or may not lie, between us.)

[Acquired in June 2016.]
[Read on and off from June 2016 in Santa Marinella, through to July 2020 in Florence.]

Ben Lerner | The Topeka School
Ben Lerner | The Topeka School

The idea of America as adolescence without end, and of the vacuum at the heart of privilege.

The idea that the deep truths are sedimented in syntax...

Now when I close my eyes and see phosphenes (though I seem always to need to search for the word, seem always to need to consider first, for a moment, whether they are pheromones, and then phonemes)...  And all my life I have wondered too, if they were universal, if everyone saw them.  But they were so faint and difficult to describe that he was never able to figure out if his parents or friends shared this experience just above the threshold of perception; the patterns dissipated under the weight of language, remained irreducibly private.

[Acquired in January 2020, from Todo Modo.]
[Read in July 2020, in Florence.]