Review: Fire Shut Up in My Bones

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Fire Shut Up in My Bones
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve finished the book but I wrote this while I was still half way through. The overall sentiment didn’t change.

I started and read half of a book called “Fire shut up in my bones”. It’s a memoir of a writer who grew up poor in Louisiana on the black side of town. He was sensitive and likely gay and that made him an outsider in a place where being brash and aggressive, even gun-loving and angry and violent, was strength and everything else weakness.

There’s a constant of violence and death around him. His Mom shot at his Dad and his Dad was mostly absent, women regularly shot at husbands who regularly cheated, Grandma had a mean streak, two kids that lived across from Grandpa drowned at a neighborhood festival, and his gay second-cousin was found tied to a bed and murdered.

The writing is evocative but the rhythm doesn’t vary. There are a lot of these descriptions: half-witted, full-bodied, beer-can-swigging, foul-mouthed, and a lot of “they lived in a small run-down house at the bottom of a round hill near the field where Grandpa Joe raised the hogs.” It works but it gets old.

I like that he attributes so much importance to his loneliness at six years old, his near suicide attempt at 8. It’s unclear if he’s going back now and giving all that the meaning that it has now that he’s an adult, or if he knew it already then then — why he spent time in the house where the two drowned children had lived, his need of a sanctuary, his need to learn resilience in the face of ridicule, what he needed from his father, how he felt about Jed, his mother’s mother’s husband.

There are a few pages about race: the first time he’s called nigger, and the fact that a friendship between his grandmother and a white family saved him from the instinctive reverse racism of fear/anger of white people (his words), but this is not a race-identity story.

Update: Now that I’m finished the book, not much of my initial opinion has changed. It’s a book worth reading, an almost too-gentle account of what must have been a pretty rough beginning. (It probably deserves 4 stars but i’m stingy.)

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Wealth Inequality is the new Income Inequality

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If you care about Piketty and his 900 page book on capital you should go read a review from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. (Good luck with that. There are hundreds.)

If you don’t care about Piketty and his views on income inequality you should not read the rest of this post because that’s what it’s about.

(If you don’t fit into either one of the above two categories, you don’t fit into my black and white worldview and I don’t know what to make of you.)

So I read Branco Milankovic’s 20 page review of Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century”, the wonderful How To Write a Thomas Piketty Think Piece in 10 Easy Steps, Piketty on Piketty  on Vox, and lots of tweets and headlines that said smart things about Piketty. These are my conclusions:

  • Capital = wealth = assets, real estate, stocks, machinery, businesses etc.
  • Wealth to income ratio is growing, which means that wealth is being concentrated in the hands of very few, and it’s becoming more important to hold on to wealth (inheritance etc.) than have a high income. In other words, it’s more worthwhile financially to marry a rich heir than get a good job.
  • Post WWII, when wealth-to-income ratio, was low was an anomaly and can’t be duplicated. It was because of really high growth rates, which an economy can’t sustain forever. Younger economies (China, India) may go through a period of low wealth-to-income ratios (or not, because the economy is more interconnected now) but will then end up in the same place as the US and Europe today.
  • We need global tax laws on wealth and inheritance if we want to stop the concentration of wealth. It will only work if there is global agreement because otherwise there will always be tax havens.

Tl;dr (which mean you couldn’t be bothered to read my 3 line review of the 20 page review of the 900 page book): Wealth inequality is the new income inequality.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

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The Solitude of Prime NumbersThe Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The idea is beautiful. Compare people to numbers, compare the loneliness of people who don’t know how to belong to the otherness of prime numbers, and thus imply that there could be resolution to their alienation because it’s part of a logical pattern, and if they can’t belong to everyone, at least they can belong to each other.

However, other than the fact that Mattia, one of the main characters, is a genius mathematician, and one passage where he introduces the concept of twin prime numbers, there’s really no mention of this theme.

In addition, the characters are dull and silent at best, and selfish and unlikable at worst. There is no progression. The relationships and the characters all follow the same motions, repeated endlessly for the 20 years that are covered in the book.

If prime numbers interest you and that’s how the title caught your attention, read pages 111-113.

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Blue is the warmest color (thoughts on, unedited)

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It’s hard to judge a movie that comes highly recommended, but equally hard to judge one with no context.

“It’s a very well acted movie.”

“Where does a sex scene end and pornography begin?”

I was expecting lesbian sex and a girl with blue hair and magnetic charm, which I got. I didn’t know to expect that the blue haired girl is secondary. The main character is Adele, a high school junior who falls in love with the blue haired art student, Emma. It’s through Adele’s eyes that we see most of the film. The discovery or acceptance that she’s gay, love at first site, hopes raised when her love speaks to her, hopes dashed when she finds out she has a girlfriend, the budding romance, the passion, the plateau and the breakup.

Things move slowly. Every time you think there will be action, other plot lines to accompany the romance, they slink away. Everything is background only to their relationship, to Adele’s view of it. She’s desperately in love. We know before she does that it’s over.

It was there from the beginning. Emma and her parents, artists all of them, don’t believe that Adele truly wants to be a teacher. It’s only that she hasn’t thought bigger, they think. Emma encourages her to do something she loves. Adele insists that she is.

Emma’s family serves shrimp. Adele’s family serves spaghetti and homemade sauce. “The pasta is delicious,” Emma says. “Simple but… very good.” They come from different worlds. Adele’s parents see art as a luxury, working in art, something you do only once or if you have a stable source of income.

That’s ultimately what divides them.

Some movies are about a slice of time, about something that happened. This follows Adele’s life. It’s unclear for how many years. There are no captions to tell us. One minute she’s eating dinner as an 11th grader and the next she’s an assistant teacher and living with Emma.

The movie is also known as Adele: Chapters 1 & 2. This must be chapter 2.

Emma no longer has blue hair. Adele throws a party for Emma’s friends. She’s been modeling for Emma. She makes a giant pot of pasta. Can she cook anything else? But Emma tells her later, “You made a good impression on my friends.”

There’s something lost between them. Adele and Emma barely spend any time together at the party in their yard. Adele eyes Emma with Lise.

I loved watching Adele dance. She doesn’t dance with abandon. It always takes her a minute or two to get into it, and then she’s someone a little different, less deliberate, less sullen, more alive. I also liked the dialogue. There’s a lot of it. The conversations in Adele’s high school lit class about love –

“I want you to think about the idea of predestination in their encounters, okay? Like what happens with love at first sight.”

about Sartre in the park –

“He started an intellectual revolution which set an entire generation free.”

the art discussions at Emma’s party –

“I’m working on morbidity in Shiele’s oeuvre.”

The teacher sets up Adele’s meeting Emma, but would I have caught it if I hadn’t already known the premise of the movie?

There’s a lot of spaghetti eating, and Adele is constantly playing with her hair and almost always has a hair in her face. Why? Adele never makes it to New York, where “everything is possible.”

There’s a lot you see the second time around. You see the details instead of the big picture. The pieces are wonderful as standalone pieces. The whole? Maybe because I tried to read to much into it, to see a theme from beginning to end, to understand why these pieces were needed for this whole, it felt unfinished, unsatisfying.

It leaves you with a feeling of regret like Eli says in the beginning, “Regret. Regret about not filling the emptiness in your heart.” He’s talking about missed chances. I mean that Emma and Adele don’t remain together. It feels like they belong together, like it was true love. Emma should have given her another chance.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress

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I’m here to write about Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson because I need to return it to the library. I have no idea what to say.

The book is about a woman, alone on a beach, and nothing happens but what’s already happened, and her sporadic trips for laundry, water, and other needs. She is, or believes herself to be, alone in the world. A review in The Nation said this, “Suspense is generated not by action but by thought.” That’s excellent.

The story moves forward. Somehow. With lots of backpedaling and so much uncertainty that certainty becomes unnecessary. This is typical:

“In Madrid, I once lived in a hotel named after Azurbaran.
Unless perhaps it was named after Goya.
And was in Pamplona.”

The story isn’t what happened but what Kate, the narrator, thinks happened. And that might change from day to day, from writing to writing, from one sentence to the next.

She is concerned with language too, how we often misspeak but know nonetheless what we mean.

“Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm. Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm. One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.”

Is there an order to madness? Kate used to be a painter and she catalogues the madness of many painters, and philosophers, and many others. Characters in Greek literature share time with Leonardo and Picasso and Rembrandt, the way they do and did in space, Leonardo in the ruins of Rome; the way they did in time – -painters could paint those character in their day, many days after the characters came to life in a different kind of painting – words – also representation, and also free from the confines by time and space.

Kate is fascinated by the fact that three thousand years ago soldiers died in the Greek wars, and then died in the same place again in World War II. Not the same soldiers.

One of her favorite quotes that are interwoven in and out of other thoughts, stories, memories.

“The world is everything that is the case.”

That’s Wittgenstein, though as far as I can recall she never says so. She then says, “I have no idea what I mean by the sentence I have just typed.”
A second is some variation of this:

“Doubtless these are inconsequential perplexities. Still, inconsequential perplexities have now and again been known to become the fundamental mood of existence, one suspects.”

She attributes it alternatively to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, possibly Heidegger.

I would recommend it to anyone interesting in writing or language. It’s unclear why it works, how it works, but it does. It’s so unconventional that it shakes the entire foundation of storytelling. It isn’t a story. It’s the inside of someone’ mind. Unreliable, recurring, full of accidental debris of a life lived, some thoughts you can’t let go of, some that won’t return, stray bits of songs. What are facts without context? What’s a mind without context?

The Square (Review)

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A documentary about the Egyptian revolution, the Arab spring of 2011 that became summer, then fall, then winter, and then spring again and it still wasn’t over. The people back in the square, demanding the fall of the regime.

We read the news, we saw the clips, shuddered a little at the violence, thrilled at little at the youth and idealism and power of the people, for us it was a show.

Is it a great documentary? Does it tell the whole story? It gives a neat timeline, helps sew together the snippets of NPR interviews, the NY Times articles, the headlines and analysis, the predictions, the exposes, the photo essays, from the last 3 years.

The people overthrew three regimes. First Mubarak, then the army, then Morsi. Now the army is back.

Before the film I didn’t see the three stages. Before the film I didn’t understand that the Muslim Brotherhood betrayed the revolution. When the Brotherhood’s rise to power was in the news I worried about extremism, about mixing religion and politics, less about what it meant for the Egyptians that had chanted “Freedom” in Tahrir. Before the film I thought Morsi was democratically elected, not anymore.

Besides for a few brutal moments, there is very little violence in the film, and more of the rise and fall of disillusion and hope, the flares of outrage, the rifts that grow between former friends, the hard choices.

It follows a few revolutionaries, uses their voices, sometimes talking to the camera, or each other, or people around them.

Ahemed Hassan is the Marius or Enjolras of Les Miserables, the fiery young revolutionary with the beautiful smile, prepared to die, optimistic for the future. His voice is frequently hoarse from yelling in the streets. He repeats the same speeches every two hours to new groups of people, half of which agree with him, he says, and they join.

Khalid is the intellectual, a British-Egyptian actor. “We communicate with slogans,” he says and always seems a little weary. He Skypes with his father, “I’m not going to vote,” he says, “We’re not ready for elections.” He’s often on YouTube, a leader in the media war. Get everyone you know with a digital camera, they need to know what’s really going on. They being us, here. When the police chase them, the people hide their cameras.

Magdy is the beard, the Muslim Brother. He disarms us all with his sincerity, his eagerness. He brings his kids to the revolution, he sometimes refers to himself as an individual, sometimes as a brother. At the end, when the country is split between the Brotherhood and the people’s revolution, Magdy is on the opposite side of Khalid and Ahmed. Magdy’s at the sit-in for Morsi while the revolutionaries celebrate his removal. They’re still friends though, they talk on the phone.

“If I die I’ll blame it on you,” Ahmed says, joking.

Other things I noticed: A lot of curly hair, obvious glasses, women dressed in everything from eye-only burkas to pants and trendy haircuts, how very frightening the power of religion, the image of the thousands of Brothers who turned up at the square on orders of the Brotherhood. Like Mecca, thousands bow together,and thousands rise together. That was the leverage, the card the Brotherhood played to make a deal with the army that gave them the parliament.

Since the movie was produced by Ahmed and Khalid and a few others, it’s hard not to suspect that the narrative was too easy, and still it leaves enough to the viewer.

Did the revolution accomplish anything? Khalid says we won’t know for 30 years, Ahmed the people took Tahrir square three times. If we need to we’ll take it again.

The Square is available on Netflix and was nominated for 2014 Best Documentary Feature.