Review: Between the World and Me

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Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t feel qualified to review this in my own words, but here are some of Coates’ own that struck me.

 

On writing/thinking:

“She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation.”

“It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort.”

“I remember watching her eat with her hands and feeling wholly uncivilized with my fork.”

“They gave the art of journalism, a powerful technology for seekers.”

 

On race/identity:

“My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams.”

“The violence rose from the fear, like smoke from a fire.”

“According to this theory “safety” was a higher value than justice.”

“We know that the authorities charged with investigating the shooting did very little to investigate the officer and did everything in their power to investigate Prince Jones.”

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Another Thing

Categories Uncategorized

I want to start a magazine called Davar Acher. Because it has the most awesome triple meaning ever.

Literally: another thing
The Hebrew meaning of this is another thing, or alternatively, something else.

Colloquially: a pig, or other abominable things
The Talmud calls a pig a ‘davar acher’ during a discussion on using clean language. Here’s a piece of it, slightly edited for clarity:

Two disciples sat before Rav. One said, “This discussion has made us [as tired] as an exhausted swine”, while the other said, “This discussion has made us [as tired] as an exhausted kid,” and Rav would not speak to the former.

My dad uses “davar acher” to refer to a certain member of the human species who did pretty abominable things like abuse and cheat on his wife, who is very dear to our family.

Academically: a second opinion
The most famous commentator on the Torah is Rashi, and his work is commonly taught to young children. Rashi usually has a question on the text – about word usage, chronology, grammatical anomalies etc. – and then attempts to give the simplest possible answer. If one explanation doesn’t suffice he’ll write the first, then say “davar acher” before introducing the second. Rashi scholars point out that often each of Rashi’s explanations fill in a blank that the other doesn’t, so that they are neither contradictory nor complementary. It’s another way of looking at it.
This teaches the child/student that there can be more than one right answer, and that often, an answer may not be entirely satisfactory.

It’s so much packed into two words: a delight in difference and dialogue, but also in discrimination. There’s the implication of something more, without diminishing the current thing. It’s a combination of canon and colloquial contribution, a reminder of how much our interpretation of words retroactively define them.

Unfortunately, like my name, few members outside the tribe can pronounce it.

 

Thoughts: Eichmann in Jerusalem

Categories Bookshelf

Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil
Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There was too much to think about so I wrote the review in point form.

>> I read the book after I watched the movie Hannah Arendt which is great. Despite the name, it’s actually a movie about an idea, and how that’s really inseparable from its author.

>> Despite Arendt being a philosopher, and one accused of being heartless, what drives her idea on the banality of evil is how disconcerted she is by Eichmann the person. He’s petty and mediocre: a paper pusher who is also a mass murderer. How do you reconcile that? How to make sense of a mass murderer that can say, “But I never killed,” and mean it? Her starting point was emotion, but it was backed by knowledge. She’d literally written the book on totalitarianism.

>>The book spends several chapters detailing the deportations from every country in Europe that came under German control, divided by regions. It’s tedious and horrifying, like Eichmann himself, and what he represents. Bureaucratic mass murder.

>> During those chapters Arendt refers to statelessness often. That almost every country began with deporting their foreign Jews who were also stateless, having fled from Germany or German occupied countries. Germany had made them stateless to facilitate this process. That got me wondering about this idea – that we’ve designed a system where you have to be a citizen to qualify for basic human rights. It turns out Arendt had written about that before too and that it’s a way bigger issue than just about Jews and WWII, though Jews were uniquely stateless since unlike a stateless Russian or Bulgarian, they didn’t have a homeland. Lots of implications of this.

>> It gets four stars for being important and readable, not for being good in a literary sense.

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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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What prayer is

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Everybody prays. Prayer is what you do when you recognize your own powerlessness but refuse to believe it. It’s when you want something so badly that you think the strength of your desire is – or should be – enough to make it happen. When someone is sick, when you don’t want to die, when you’re waiting for an answer about a job or a school, when you’ve hurt someone you love and you’d give anything for them to forgive you.

The first time I got kicked out of class I was in 1st grade. I laughed because we’d gotten the song for the prayer confused. My teacher scolded me and told me to look inside the prayerbook. I complied by leaning over all the way so that my nose touched the page. “Out!” she yelled so loud that I knew my sister, who was in the room next door, heard. I was mortified.

When I was nine I started saying the evening prayer, which only men are obligated to do. That was probably the peak of my religiosity.

Sometimes, when I paid attention to the words I would have brief moments of appreciation for the God that spoke and the world was created, for the way the angels praised him in thirty different synonymous ways, for the miracles he preformed for us and the forgiveness he was always ready to bestow upon us.

Mostly through, through years and years of saying the same prayers, it was never a meaningful experience. Oh, the daydreams. I would open up my prayer book, get to the second paragraph, which begins “And it was after these matters and God called to Avraham”. That was my cue. Off my mind would go to the fantasy of the week or month.

A part of me wished I had better self control, but I wasn’t a fighter. When God called to Avraham and I was called to my daydreams I didn’t fight it. I knew all the words by heart so it was easy to mumble through the pages, sing at the singing parts, stand at the standing parts, put my hand over my eyes at Shema and bow during Modim. I was always surprised when we got to the end. I had no memory of saying everything in between.

That kind of prayer is different. It’s organized, ritualized, systemized and most of it is praise for a supernal being, not a heartfelt cry for help, or at least for comfort.

Not everybody prays like that. There’s a song lyric that says, “I know I’m not forgiven, but I need a place to sleep,” and later “I know I’m not forgiven but I hope that I’ll be given some peace.”

That’s another prayer. I know I don’t deserve it, I’ve done nothing to earn it, I can make no case that I should have it, but I need it. Not in a hungry way, in I just need a moment of respite way, a moment of comfort, of safety. I need to relinquish control to someone, something, anything.

Who do people pray to? In this definition of prayer that is. Fate, the universe, a dead relative, Jesus, Allah, a saint, a star, or to themselves.

Maybe we need another word so that people don’t confuse this prayer with ceremonial prayers.

The 20 lost years

Categories Half of Myself

In the first 21 years of my life I watched perhaps 10 movies and zero TV shows.
In fact it wasn’t until I was 20 years old that I learned what a TV show was, or that it existed.

The only one I’d heard about before was 24. I’d overheard some males talking about it – something to do with explosions and happening over the course of 24 hours.

The first show I watched I found accidentally on the internet one night in the apartment I shared with a stranger in Brooklyn. Across the street a mobile police tower blinked blue light through my window all night. The show was a reality competition on CBS where they chose a new actress for The Young and The Restless. In what would become a signature move, I watched all the episodes in one night.

I was like a vampire who had tasted blood, and nothing was going to stop me from getting more. Only I wasn’t sure how to get more.

If you haven’t been convinced yet, it’ll be hard for you to fathom the depth of my ignorance. No one in my life watched TV. CBS meant as little to me as FKG or GMO or GPO or NBC. They all meant nothing. I didn’t know what channels were, or networks or cable or prime time or daytime or The Simpsons or South Park. I still don’t know because almost all the TV I’ve ever watched has been on the internet.

Back to that summer in New York. I watched the few full episodes of Survivor and CSI: Miami available on CBS. Somehow, I ended up finding the show Cold Case on YouTube. The episodes were divided in to 10 minute segments because this was when YouTube still had the 10 minute limit.

So I watched all of those on my Dell computer in the guest bedroom of my brother’s house during a very shitty time of my life, which had almost nothing to do with the fact that by then, I was living in New Jersey.

I also knew that this was the beginning of my downfall; that whatever was prompting me to spend hours watching low-quality YouTube videos of actors unearthing dead bodies – and enjoying it – would strip me of all virtue, discipline and probably humanity.

Over the next few years, TV was my escape and my self-sabotaging tool. I stayed up through nights of binge sessions and then stumbled through the days. I watched and I watched and I watched, hoping that eventually I would grow sick of it, confused that it was something so detrimental and something so necessary to me, sure that it proved the folly of my life choices while opening me to all the worlds I was so hungry to know.

I haven’t stopped watching Netflix and I lament the wasted hours.

But at the same time it’s incredibly frustrating to me that no matter how much I try I can’t make up for those lost years. It’s not that I feel deprived, it’s just that there are so many moments where it keeps me apart. So many “What, you never watched The Wire? Gilmore Girls? Sex and the City?” moments. I’m not sure how to explain that while they were watching All American TV, I was translating Yiddish texts about the various ways keeping Shabbat reveals the hidden truth in the natural fabric of the world.

So I just shrug, or maybe launch into an autobiography.