Nothing More to Lose, by Najwan Darwish (book review)

Nothing More to Lose, by Najwan Darwish 

Inspired by the pleasure I gained from reading Citizen cover-to-cover, the first time I had ever done so with a book of contemporary poetry, I decided to do the same with this little volume. I was so glad I did.

Najwan Darwish is a Palestinian and is (unbeknownst to me until a few weeks ago) one of the pre-eminent Arabic language poets.

He deserves it.

Nothing More to Lose is a collection largely emphasizing themes of displacement, loss, war, brutality, and the love of family. It is a painfully clear-eyed look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even as I read it I felt my frame of reference for that war shifting.

Just as Maus by Art Spiegelman frames my understanding of the Holocaust (not necessarily because it's the most important book written about the Holocaust but because it is the book that spoke to me most clearly, the book that is seared into my mind), just as The Things They Carried frames my understanding of the Vietnam War . . . Nothing More to Lose is becoming my frame for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Let's put historical importance aside for a moment.

Damn, the man writes well.

I read a lot of poetry, OK? I read poetry for one publication and edit poetry for another. I probably read at least a dozen to two dozen poetry submissions a week, plus the poetry reading I do for pleasure. Almost no one can write about emotionally charged injustices (emotionally charged anything) without collapsing either into the sentimental or the polemic.

By way of illustrative example, let's take the Cancer Poem. On the one hand, some poets enjoy painting a Hallmark portrait of the Noble Sufferer. On the other, some poets enjoy writing about Inhumane Modern Medicine. On the third hand, other poets (or poetasters, perhaps I should say) take an even lower road and write about the Ennobling Truths of Suffering, and Everyone Is All The Same Underneath. Hurk. The same three tropes pop up again and again in many poems about suffering of all sorts.

Najwan Darwish does none of these things. He does for the poetry of war what Jane Kenyon did for the poetry of illness. He writes about moments, about details, and the emotional detonations that a detail can encompass.

He writes honestly but unsentimentally. His writing shocks, but he is not writing to shock. He is writing to be true. And oh, he is.

Verdict: Poetry lovers, read this book.


Links! (1/28/15)

Whirlwind links roundup today — as I am prepping this post to schedule, it is snowing, I am staying after work to type, and I need to get out of here!

The hilarious: 

Mallory Ortberg does it again. Texts from Fanny Dashwood make me lol all over the place. I love you, Mallory!

Buzzfeed actually has some good content this week! Hermione Granger and the Goddam Patriarchy. I rather wish this is what Harry Potter was actually about . . . or is it?

And the Onion succeeds once again at wresting humor from the Purely Awful with their article "I Don't Vaccinate My Child Because It's My Right to Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back"

With that, I can segue nicely into the science, medicine, and skepticism I found on my blogroll this week:



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“Top Ten Tuesday:” Books to read with my “book club”

I had no idea what a book blog meme was until I heard them mentioned in my favorite bookish podcast Dear Book Nerd. 'parently it's the same thing as a blog linkup, except book-themed.

So now you've learned that despite being a tech-savvy millenial, I am woefully out of the loop. I dunno whether I want to do this on a weekly basis, but I will see whether I enjoy it.

Anyway The Broke and the Bookish runs a weekly affair wherein bloggers link up themed top-ten list.

This week's theme is: Ten Books I'd Love to Read With My Book Club/If I Had a Book Club


Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (book review)

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine 

Read this book.

Okay, that's not going to be my entire blog post on this book, but it could be.

Citizen is a book-length poem about racism, both micro- and macro-aggressions, in America. It is written primarily in the second person, and is actually the first book-length work I have read in the second person (No, I haven't read Bright Lights, Big City.) The use of the second person was remarkably compelling to me. I knew it was written in the second person before I picked it up, and was worried it might come across as "gimmicky" to me, or even annoying. It didn't. It was gripping and helped propel me through the narrative.

Until I read Citizen, not only had I never read in the second person, I had also rarely (ever?) read a volume of modern poetry as a coherent entity (of course I have read epic poetry like that — my obsession with The Divine Comedy is a topic for another day!). I have been reading all modern poetry collections as if they were anthologies, dipping in and out, never reading straight through.

Citizen is not meant to be read that way. The work is not clearly separated into different poems with titles that can be easily excerpted (though part of it was published in "Poetry" in March 2014 and can be found here; please, please, at least check this out to see if you could be into the full work), but each section of poetry is set off by whitespace and sometimes imagery.

Rankine has amazing range as a poet. She seems to effortlessly turn from a stream-of-consciousness style (as in the excerpt I linked) to a more abstract style, sort of Jackson Pollock poetry; at times she is working more towards effect than towards meaning. (I am sure there is a name for this style of poetry; can any blog readers out there help me out? Is it just modernism?)

Stylistically, the closest thing to Citizen that I have read is probably Ulysses, which I am reading right now. Both works use dialogue, stream of consciousness, and words-for-their-effects. Both Joyce and Rankine turn almost effortlessly from one voice to another. (Lest my comparison to Ulysses turn you away, I will reassure you that Rankine is much more readable than Joyce. Also, Citizen is only 160 pages long, with fairly large print and pictures. Ulysses, let me assure you, has no pictures.)

Is this my favorite style of writing? No. No, it isn't. But Rankine is so very, very good at it that I actually don't care. In a totally-not-at-all sort of way (they are entirely different poets) my reaction to her reminds me of my reaction to Sylvia Plath: not at all my type of poetry, but omigod you are so good at this. 

I've been reading a lot about racism recently (like lots of people in America right now), and this is hands down the best thing I've read, both in terms of compelling me and in terms of sheer artistic virtuosity.

Read this book. 


Object Permanence Project, Week Two

This week, rather like last week, my loved and appreciated object is a collection. This week's "object" is my library.

My library, circa May 2014


Franny and Zooey, by Salinger (book review)

I loved this book.

Upon finishing this book, I was immediately seized by Book Evangelism. I wanted everyone in my life to know how amazing this book was, and I took to Goodreads to find out who else had read it, who else had loved it, and who was just waiting to be converted.

I was in that blissed-out trance state of Book Infatuation and it was inconceivable to me that — wait for it — perhaps not everyone liked this book.

Until I realized one of my friends hated it. She didn't put it on her  "books to be hurled from me at great velocity" Goodreads list (a list title which, God help me, I now dearly wish to copy), but she one-starred it, which is the Goodreads equivalent of a death wish (the same rating I gave to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for the record).

Honestly, though, I can see why someone might fairly hate this book.

It is billed as a short story and a novella, but it's not, not really. It's a morality play, or a parable, or possibly a religious text. So if you want actual plot, I have to say this falls a bit short. 

I found the Glass family (the two main characters are sister and brother, Franny and Zooey Glass) to be rather precious and unbelievable as well. It is a family with seven extraordinarily precocious children who go about doing things like starring in child trivia competitions and memorizing Epicictus. Also they speak in italics all the damn time. It's annoying as hell, godamit.

The whole lot of them would fit right into a Wes Anderson movie. In fact, this whole book reminded me vividly of a Wes Anderson movie. And if you hate Wes Anderson movies, well, it's hard to blame you (though I, personally, enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel very much, thank you.)

All that said: I loved this book


Links! (1/21/15)

Here's what's caught my attention around the web this week.

I've been thinking a lot (a LOT!) about diversity in my media consumption. Trying to make 2015 the Year of reading Diversely (not that 2016, 17, etc shouldn't also be like that, of course!).

Here's a post from Book Riot that didn't really "start it all" for me but certainly encapsulates my thought right now: Reading Diversely FAQ

But as I try to read diversely, I've also been really aware of the tropes that "multicultural" (or whatever jargon the publishing industry feels the need to use) books can fall into. Here are two excellent articles about the pitfalls I want to avoid. The first is by Chris Prioleau at The Awl and is about depictions of Blackness in film (but applies to books for sure): Stagnant Blackness and the Modern Race Drama; the second, by Jabeen Akhtarover at the LARB, is a little older and is specifically about South Asian stereotyping in books marketed to Western audiences: Why Am I Brown? South Asian Fiction and Pandering to Western Audiences.

Both were super interesting articles and opened up lots of questions for me, primarily: WTF publishing industry. WTF!


Cooking without a recipe: Inauthentic Indian

Did you think the blog relaunch was going to be all thoughtfulness and book reviews? No, my friends, no. In the spirit of the “capacious hold-all” mentioned in my beloved Virginia Woolf quote (see my blog header) I will be including all the odds and ends of my life. And I love to cook.

I use recipes when I cook only perhaps 25% of the time. The remainder of the time I get an idea (often inspired by what I have on hand, or a recipe in one of my [many] cookbooks) and go from there.

I know that when I started cooking, the idea that it could be easy, intuitive, was awe-inspiring to me. I don't think I would have realized how relaxed and extemporaneous cooking could be if I hadn't had one friend who cooked like that — without a book, without worries, without a 'net' of any kind. And she cooked the most delicious food.

I would now like to be that friend to you, my blog reader. You, too, can cook without recipes. I am going to try and share my thought processes with you.


Introducing the “Object Permanence” Project (Week One)

One of my ongoing goals is to be disciplined about the objects I bring into my life.

I am painfully aware of the ways that I have bought — quite literally! — into materialism.

I try to take regular “buy nothing” days (weeks, months). I also practice “project 333” — every three months, I go through my wardrobe and select 33 items of clothing that I will wear for the next 3 months (I don't count undergarments, hosiery, workout wear, or pajamas). This has helped me both minimize my wardrobe and also brought awareness to what I really need so far as clothing.

I am interested in bringing this sensibility to the rest of my life.

But I wanted it to be fun! 

Has anyone else seen the “52 objects” project around the web? It began at the Marion House Book Blog (52 Objects) and took off in a minor way, with other bloggers following suit. Every week for a year the blogger chooses an object to photograph and document. Some have made this about establishing their personal aesthetic taste; others have made it about appreciating what they have; still others have used it as a way to bring mindfulness towards what they own.

Also, does anyone else take a guilty, voyeuristic pleasure in “haul&rdqo; videos? (These are youtube videos in which someone documents their shopping [we're talking pleasure, not groceries] for the world to ogle.) I do.

So I thought I'd combine the two.

Every week I will select an object or collection of objects that I own and love, with an eye towards mindfully appreciating what I have. I will also, throughout the week, assemble a collection of at least seven (one per day) objects to let go of (not counting trash and consumables — no old underwear or empty toothpaste tubes!).

I will then share a photograph of the object I love, and an "unhauled" photograph of what I'm letting go of (hoping that this might tap into some of the same voyeuristic thrill I love in those damn haul videos).

I will continue doing this for, ideally, a year, but realistically until I feel like I have acheived some sort of “object permanence.”

Here is week one!


Book Review: On Immunity, by Eula Biss

Eula Biss: On Immunity

Some prefer to assume health as an identity. I am healthy, we tell each other, meaning that we eat certain foods and avoid others, that we exercise and do not smoke. Health, it is implied, is the reward for living the way we live, and lifestyle is its own variety of immunity.
When health becomes an identity, sickness becomes not something that happens to you, but who you are. Your style of life, I gleaned from the way the word lifestyle was used in junior high school health class, is either clean or dirty, safe or unsafe, free of disease or prone to disease...
...My generation came of age in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, and it seems to have left us believing not that we are all vulnerable to disease, but that it is possible to avoid disease by living a cautious life and limiting our contact with others.

Eula Biss's thoughtful book is not a pro-vaccination polemic (although I certainly enjoy such polemics, and if you also enjoy them, I thoroughly recommend Paul Offit to you). Rather, it is a meditation on health and disease in the tradition of Susan Sontag's classic essays "Illness as Metaphor" and "AIDS and its Metaphors." (I also recommend Susan Sontag. Strongly!)

What I liked most about Biss's work was how explicitly she called out the classism that pervades the anti-vaccine movement.


Links! (1/14/15)

Here's what I've been reading this week. Not all of it is new, but all of it rose to my attention in some new way (if, you know, following Book Riot and Brain Pickings somewhat obsessively counts as a 'new way.')

1.  I will never get tired of this article by Tim Parks about reading with a pen in your hand.

“A pen is not a magic wand. The critical faculty is not conjured from nothing. But it was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem. There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue.”

I read Franny & Zooey for the first time just yesterday (I read the little book in about 24 hours, in one large excited gulp), and enjoyed it so much that I almost immediately flipped back to the beginning and picked up a pen. Marking text is consecration, not desecration.


Having a child is neither the hardest nor the most amazing thing I have ever done.

As my husband and I were deciding whether or not to have a child, I delved deep into the land of the Mommy Blogger looking for help deciding whether or not it was worthwhile to have children.

I heard, repetitively, permutations of the same answer: Having a child will be the biggest challenge in your life, and also the biggest joy. Or words to that effect.

At the time my decision-making was in a state of equipoise. I was equally certain both that I wanted children and that I would never have them. 

I hated that sentiment. Consider: if, universally, having a child is the hardest and the most joyful thing a person (usually a woman, in the blogosphere -- very seldom did I hear this sentiment from a man) could ever do -- what does that say about people living without children?

Does that mean that their joy is less? That their challenges are less? I especially hated the common corollary statement: "you don't know what love is until you've had a child." Does that mean people without children don't understand love?

I found the statement nonsensical and offensive.

And then I had a baby. 

I still find it nonsensical and offensive.