On ‘The Fire Next Time’

The Fire Next TimeThe Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, and just about anything else written by James Baldwin, remains relevant. It’s spooky and altogether tragic that pieces written in the 1960s reflect the current realities lived by black communities and individuals in the US today.

Eloquent. Honest. Brutally clear and well-reasoned throughout, The Fire Next Time, much like all of his works, should be required reading for us all. They also serve as a stark reminder of the as yet unfulfilled promises of the Civil Rights era.

We will never move beyond the divisions we face now if we do not honestly and openly sit down and listen to one another and attempt to understand what it means to grow up black in the US.

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On ‘The Corpse Exhibition…’

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of IraqThe Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m honestly not entirely sure what I think about most of these short stories.

This was a compelling read, primarily because it provides a glimpse into a world I most likely will never fully understand or comprehend. War-torn Iraq both before and after the 2003 invasion by the US remains utterly incomprehensible for its violence and chaos. And, these stories paint rather vivid pictures of the realities lived by Iraqis against it all.

War is hell, and the hell lived by Iraqis is rather beautifully captured in this collection. It is not an easy read, but it is compelling.

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Surrealistic pillow, v2.0

My dreams in Helsinki are never as vivid or as surreal as those when we’re on holiday. But, every once in a while, my subconscious plays a little joke on me as I slumber. This morning, my subconscious decided to remind that I evidently really love gin and need to read some Hemingway again soon. Or, simply, Cuba is on my mind.

Just before waking, I dreamt that I was at some rather random gathering involving sail boats and Christmas trees, neither of which are at all common in my waking world. Amidst the festivities, some of us sat at a rather plain table whilst several of my fellow real-life gin-loving friends waxed poetic and sang the praises of one gin or another.

As a bottle of one of those gins was passed around, I poured myself a rather generous glass. No ice. No tonic. No garnish. Just gin. [NB: As much as I do enjoy a lovely and refreshing gin and tonic on a warm summer afternoon, I’d never ever consider just pouring a full glass! ]

After pouring, I look up and across the table from me sat Papa Hemingway, without his captain’s hat or pipe, but most definitely his snow-white beard and paunch.

Looking on and seemingly otherwise rather bored, what was his reaction to my long pour?

‘Is that all for you, sister, or are you sharing?’

I woke myself up chuckling.

Dream a dream, and make yourself wonder what the hell goes on in that head of yours when you aren’t distracted by all the bloody noise.

Papa Hemingway

On ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grief affects each of us in unexpected ways. Each death of someone we love leaves marks we rarely anticipate or understand fully until time passes and healing begins leaving scars where wounds once festered.

This incredibly personal book details not just one woman’s grief following the unexpected death of her father, but her journey through that grief through the careful development of a bond with and training of a goshawk. Knowing nothing of falconry, it’s a fascinating read. But, more so, it’s an intimate and brutally honest narrative, both recounting her own misery and despair at losing her father and describing her failings related to her bird. (And, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)

Replace her goshawk with whatever pet who you’ve owned or bonded with during a particularly difficult period in your own life, and it’s completely understandable how Ms Macdonald begins to assume the personality of her goshawk. She lives, breathes and sees the world through Mabel’s eyes completely distancing herself from the world beyond. It’s an escape from the reality that left her heartbroken. And, utterly relatable.

This is a beautiful read, if rather forlorn and bereft at times. Yet, given her eventual emergence from the very deepest depths of heartache, it’s also full of hope. She emerges from the darkness and dark times. And, all of us can use a little reminder of what is possible these days.

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On ‘Men Without Women’

Men Without WomenMen Without Women by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Haruki Murakami.

I love the way he is able to transport his readers to the exact place he’s describing. How he can weave tales which seem utterly outlandish and yet entirely plausible. How he can create emotions, particularly those of longing and loss and a sense of wanting, simply through his characters’ thoughts and actions.

For each of these stories describing Men Without Women, I’d like more. I’d like to know what happens next to each of them.

More than anything, I’m reminded once again why Murakami is amongst my most favourite authors. Thank you once again, Maestro. You are a genre unto yourself.

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On ‘Women & Power: A Manifesto’

Women & Power: A Manifesto

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received this little gem of a book through one of my yearly subscriptions from Strand Books.

Weaving a thread that connects the lack of women in positions of power to women’s roles in ancient Greece provides much fodder for the reasons women today remain the minority in power positions.

From the time of Aristophanes to imagery of a Triumph Trump holding the severed head of a Hillary Medusa, this book-derived-from-a-lecture offers much to consider.

It also challenges us to reconsider why when women speak up, it often takes a man to validate her position and words for us to hear them. Even today.

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On ‘I Can’t Breathe’

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay StreetI Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t imagine anyone watching the video of the last minutes of Eric Garner’s life and not being utterly horrified. Horrified by the excessive use of force and complete lack of concern for a man’s life.

I also cannot imagine how haunted Matt Taibbi must be from the research and passion he put into this book. But, I’m glad he took on those ghosts and took such care into getting the narrative right. He succeeded in so many ways.

By all accounts, Eric Garner shouldn’t be dead. At least not because of an illegal choke-hold. But, he is, leaving a giant hole in his family’s life as well as the community he called home. By all accounts, the man responsible for choking him to death — Daniel Pantaleo — should have been held to account. He was not. In a rather twisted alter-reality, Pantaleo is viewed by many as the victim.

This book isn’t just about that fateful arrest and its aftermath. It’s about a system — in New York as well as the United States in general — that forces us all to examine our own ideas of community, safety and policing, and the consequences of attempting to ‘feel safe’. It’s about what we’re willing to allow police to do to feel safe. And, it’s about what we will accept as ‘the way it is’.

As much as I respect anyone who chooses a career in law enforcement, I also fear how far the justice system itself has gone to protect its members. When entire communities recount story after story after story of ‘walking while black’, being pulled from cars and brutally beaten for asking a question, and then charged with crimes they did not and could not possibly commit, we must recognise that something is broken. And, it’s not the windows.

Taibbi packs so much food-for-thought within this book. It’s heartbreaking, even more so when you consider living within the realities he describes so painstakingly. We know Eric Garner’s name because of the clear evidence of brutality captured on a cell phone. The world saw that video and collectively gasped. We gasped again when a grand jury came back with no indictment.

Taibbi begins this book by describing another event in Staten Island. Ibrahim ‘Brian’ Annan, a young man stopped by police around the same time Garner was choked, was pulled from his car and beaten so violently by two police officers that one leg was broken in three places. He was charged with a total of seven felonies, all of which were eventually dropped, a process which took nearly a dozen court appearances and more than two years. The charges lobbed against Annan were so absurd and so obviously intended to simply force him to relent even the judge presiding over the cases found them silly. Annan’s beating was not captured on film. And, whilst disabled, he lived to tell the story. But, sadly, this is not uncommon in Staten Island, in particular, or in other inner cities in general (think Baltimore and Freddie Grey). It is sadly not new, either. Taibbi also tells the tale of Clementine Ross, a woman who has been waiting 50 years for closure on the shooting of her husband by a cop in Arkansas. His crime? Asking for a receipt.

Matt Taibbi focuses on a killing on Bay Street. But, given all of the names of all those who have died before and since Eric Garner, individuals primarily unarmed and shot by law enforcement officials, I’m surprised any of us can breathe.

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