When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut, trans. by Adrian Nathan West

Wide-ranging, mystical, crazed and inspired, this singular novel explores theoretical physics through a series of weird, engrossing human stories.

Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World is an astonishing historical novel of physics, war, human weakness and quantum physics. In a lovely translation from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, the fictionalized histories of Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and more come alive to disquiet and intrigue readers.

The book opens with Hermann Göring’s addiction to dihydrocodeine and the suicides of many Nazi leaders by cyanide in the final months of World War II. It gets only a little less grim from there. But even with such bleak subject matter, Labatut’s imaginative evocations of disturbed minds from the rarified ranks of mathematics and physics are thoroughly captivating and strangely lovely, joining science with mysticism in surprising ways. “In the deepest substrate of all things, physics had not found the solid, unassailable reality Schrödinger and Einstein had dreamt of, ruled over by a rational God pulling the threads of the world, but a domain of wonders and rarities, borne of the whims of a many-armed goddess toying with chance.”

Labatut’s narrative travels in time and space, covering the development of pesticides, chemical weapons and Prussian blue pigment; painting, literature and opera; the existential angst of particle and quantum physics; eroticism and fever dreams. A young Heisenberg interrupts Schrödinger’s lecture to argue about the nature of subatomic particles. Later the reader sees Heisenberg feverish, ill, madly dreaming of spectral lines and harmonically bound electrons while reading Goethe’s poems inspired by the Persian mystic Hafez. Schrödinger also raves, theorizing and obsessing over the adolescent daughter of his physician. Lesser-known scientific figures include Karl Schwarzschild, the soldier who first exactly solved Einstein’s equation of general relativity and died shortly after; Shinichi Mochizuki, who revolutionized mathematics and then withdrew from the field; Alexander Grothendieck, who fled society to live as a hermit and also gave up mathematics entirely; and the seventh duc de Broglie, a “timid prince” whose Nobel Prize did not help him stomach the infighting among scholars of theoretical physics. These are the figures and the stories that have shaped major advances in science in the modern era; they also verge on insanity.

This astonishing novel blends forms: lyrical, inventive and also rooted in history, concerned with the overlaps of genius and madness, innovation and destruction. “The physicist–like the poet–should not describe the facts of the world, but rather generate metaphors and mental connections…. That aspect of nature required a completely new language,” writes Labatut, and likewise he offers a new way of writing about science and history. The vision of reality painted by When We Cease to Understand the World is terrifying but finely wrought, and will live long in readers’ minds.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cats.

movie: Summer of Soul (2021)

I got to see this back at the Pickford in Bellingham with my parents, and it was a real treat.

All the voices I’ve been hearing about this movie, from friends and from reviews, have been unanimous, and I’m in agreement: this is a very special film, from a few angles. Summer of Soul is a documentary mining archival footage, never before seen, from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. The footage sat in storage for some 50 years; the same summer, Woodstock stole the spotlight, and this historic event (or events – the festival took place over six weekends) faded away like so much Black American history has. It’s thanks to Questlove, of the Roots, director of this film, that we’re learning about it now. The festival showcased jazz, funk, gospel, blues and soul, via names like Stevie Wonder, BB King, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Fifth Dimension, and many more. These performers played to tens of thousands in Harlem each weekend (an estimated 300,000 total). Here we see original footage spliced with recent interviews with performers and audience members, and other historical footage for context, so that the music is set against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the assassinations of the 1960s, and more.

The festival footage is entrancing, and the music is transcendent, and if the film had stuck to that content, it would have been worth seeing. But including the historical context lifts it up several levels, making it not only a joy to see but Important. The context is a little harder to watch – it’s serious, especially because it highlights how far we haven’t come. But the music remains an absolute joy, too. If there are moments that might make you cry (Jesse Jackson recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final moments to the crowd), the footage of the sublime musical performances rarely failed to make me smile wide, as the crowd did – I loved those shots of so many joyful people of all ages and appearances. Many of those interviewed, both musicians and audience, commented on how significant it was to look out at a crowd of that many Black people gathered together. (There were non-Black attendees, but very few.) I guess I was a little surprised that Harlemites would feel that way; but the gathering itself was unprecedented, wasn’t it. This felt like an important point, especially because so many mentioned it.

Depending on age and background, some viewers will find this film very educational; even those familiar with the time, place and milieu will find something enlightening, and the music is sure to blow every mind. It sent me out of that theatre feeling more full and nourished than I went in. It also comments on ever-relevant parts of our ongoing history as a nation. Very strongly recommended, for music fans and for us all.


Rating: 9 smiling faces.

Above the Smoke: A Family Album of Pocahontas County Fire Towers by Leanna Alderman and Eleanor Mahoney

Loaned by a friend who found out I’m into fire towers, this book has a particularly local focus, and I dug it. This project began when LeAnna Alderman, as a VISTA volunteer at Allegheny Mountain Radio, interviewed a retired fire lookout, and was so absorbed that she pursued more such interviews. She left the station before she could finish the collection, which was continued by Eleanor Mahoney (also a VISTA volunteer) until this book was built and eventually published some six years after Alderman’s first interview. It consists of three main sections: background on fire lookouts and fire suppression efforts in the US and in Appalachia, including the Depression and the CCC; information on each of the twelve towers in Pocahontas County; and best and finally, twelve interviews with retired towermen and one towerwoman, and their family members.

I think this slim book would serve as a good introduction to the idea of lookout towers; I didn’t need that introduction, but found it fascinating as a look at one small region’s relationship to the system. In comparison to the Gila out west (an example I know pretty well), this story involves considerably more emphasis on the Depression and the CCC, and tower use ended precipitously and much earlier in these parts. It was interesting to see the lookouts’ opinions of what came after (smoke spotting via aircraft! which was shortlived) – most were not impressed. And it was interesting to see a small community’s impression of the lookout system in general. As part of a larger network of forestry and roads/infrastructure operations, the lookout towers provided critically needed employment and developed a relationship with the forests, and an understanding of fire prevention a la Smokey the Bear. I did find it interesting that Above the Smoke didn’t deal with the idea that fire is both natural and necessary for healthy forests – a relatively recent idea in the officialdom of forestry (etc.), but important to Fire Season, for example.

I loved learning about a forgotten chunk of old growth: “The 140-acre tract of virgin red spruce forest located near the tower was named the Gaudineer Scenic Area. This tract was never logged because of discrepancies between competing land surveys – this tiny slice of old growth forest survived because it wasn’t on any company’s map!” (I like to think that there may have been some intention in this ‘error’.) And mention of the Thorny Mountain tower was noted – “Hopefully, one day, Thorny Mountain will reopen to the public.” Well, it has, although it’s awfully hard to book. I hope to snag a couple of nights there myself next year.

This book is short and modest in its scope. The interviews themselves remain faithfully in the vernacular, which I enjoyed. They provide a glimpse of life in a particular time and place, and I’m super grateful to the folks who collected these memories for us all. Thanks for the loan, DB.


Rating: 7 cans of peaches.

movie: Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2018)

I had left Italy. I lost the Italian landscape and architecture and something else had to take its place. This stimulated the formation of inner images. I started working with passion when I discovered that I had things of my own that had to come out, that I could express something others don’t have.

What a beautiful, completely absorbing and eventually transcendent film. For starters, something like Fantastic Fungi, there is such a rich body of work in the weird world of M.C. Escher that any proper documentary should turn out to be visually stunning, and this one does the job properly. I loved the animations of his prints, which it turns out he’d imagined happening. (There was a moment when a tessellated lizard clicked, came to life, and clambered out of its print. Hops lost his shit.) What I didn’t see coming was such a fascinating life – I’d known nothing of Escher the man, I guess, and in fact hadn’t realized how recently he lived and worked, and therefore how World War II and the rise of fascism had affected his life. I had not expected Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) to be onscreen early, telling the amusing story of Escher’s claiming he was a mathematician and not an artist at all. The Escher that emerges here is grumpy and flummoxed by the hippies’ interest in his work, and their annoying tendency to colorize his black-and-whites with such bright hues. His eldest son is there too, describing (chillingly) how the family chose to leave Italy 1935 after the son (as a small child) showed a disturbing interest in playing the baby fascist. This whole story was fascinating, whimsical, frequently funny and also pathos-ridden.

I appreciated Escher the romantic (in his relationship with his wife), the curmudgeon, and the tortured artist:

What I can say is that no print ever succeeds. They all fail. Simply because I always pursue a vision that cannot be realized… my prints, none of which were every made with the primary aim of making something beautiful, simply cause me headaches… that is the reason that I never feel fully at home among my colleagues. They pursue beauty first and foremost. Perhaps I only pursue wonder.

And this film was simply mind-blowing. The music, the diegetic sound, the still photography, the video of landscapes and architectures referred to in Escher’s work, the animations from his work, the delightfully performed narration (“told in his own words from hundreds of letters, diaries and notes”) by Stephen Fry – it all came together for a very special experience. I’m so glad my parents clued me in. (This has inspired purchase of an Escher art book, so stay tuned for more reviews. Always more.) Definitely recommended.


Rating: 9 steps.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

Liz sent me a clipping from The New York Times Book Review recommending this book, which turned out to be a happy synchronicity in two ways: one, I had had the book on my shelves for years, still bearing a sticker from the library where I worked when I first met Liz. Two, I stuck that clipping, that slip of paper, in the book as a reminder, and the book turns out to be in some ways about little slips of paper, which I had learned by the time I found the clipping in its pages again. Good work as ever, Liz.

Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a fine example of creative nonfiction writing of the less-personal kind: not memoir, but history; but history told with a novelist’s eye. This Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is for word-fans, of course – that OED mention has pulled them in – but also for readers who enjoy an absorbing historical narrative.

The Professor, here, is the Scottish Dr. James Murray, teacher and philologist who was eventually recruited to take on a formidable role: the editorship of a project of such enormity that most thought it could not be done. Here, Winchester backs up to give us a quick history of lexicography (Samuel Johnson figures centrally). The new project attempted something unprecedented: to define every word in the English language, not only those deemed “difficult” or somehow deserving of promotion; to describe rather than prescribe how they were used; and to record the history of each word, using quotations from written material, including the identification of each word’s first entry in written history. The philologists and word-nerds who undertook this goal repeatedly declared that they thought it would take a handful of volumes or a handful of years; it would take more than seventy years to publish its first “complete” version in twelve volumes, which of course needed immediate supplementing and updating. Dr. Murray was the editor and boss of this project, which would become the OED, in one of its earliest incarnations (the one that stuck).

That’s the title’s Professor. And then there was Dr. William Chester Minor, an American who spent his childhood in Ceylon with missionary parents, then trained as a medical doctor at Yale, served as a surgeon for the Union army in the American Civil War, and was later institutionalized for his delusions. Enjoying a little freedom in London in 1872, those delusions convinced him that he was pursuing one of the bad men who abducted and molested him at night, which is how he came to shoot and kill an impoverished local brewery worked named George Merrett, who left behind a pregnant wife and seven small children. For this, Minor would be “detained in safe custody… until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known.” He spent nearly the next fifty years of his life in an asylum in Broadmoor, just outside of London, “a certified criminal lunatic.”

Winchester offers that Minor’s life was saved, in a sense, when he came across an advertisement from Murray, seeking volunteers to read… well, everything, and search out the quotations needed to write what would become the Oxford English Dictionary. Minor happily had some spending money (his family was well-off, and he drew a pension from his military service), and the good graces of the asylum leadership at Broadmoor let him build a prodigious library of rare and old books. Aside from these he had nothing but time, and created his own system of indexing that changed the way he was able to serve Murray and the OED. Over decades, he would serve as one of the most prolific volunteer contributors to the project, sending in tens of thousands of little slips of paper with words and quoted texts carefully penned. He and Murray would build a friendship, and together they built a book. It is Winchester’s conclusion that while Merrett’s murder was tragic, and Minor’s life another tragedy, they were both necessary to contribute to something of a miracle in lexicography.

Liz’s clipping from the NYTBR (by Charlie Savage) calls The Professor and the Madman a “mashup of erudition and melodrama,” and I think that is a fine description. There is plenty of hearty history and lexicographic detail here, which I loved. There is also a definitely flair for the dramatic, and there were a few points where I didn’t love Winchester’s editorial tone. (A laugh at the expense of one dictionary reader and then “one of the women readers” – why that detail? – or a snobbish note about a slum. He could be a bit creepy about the naked girls on the Ceylon beaches. I didn’t care for the way he characterizes the stepmother as “so often the cause of problems for male children.”) There’s no question that this is a novelistic history, in the spirit of Erik Larson or Jon Krakauer – who were among my first experiences with creative nonfiction. By novelistic I mean that the storytelling is clearly meant to be entertaining: an eye for the colorful detail, a leaning into suspense, even a bit of a red herring here or there. It’s great fun. When Samuel Johnson is “damned” as “a wretched etymologist,” I cackled.

Chapters open with dictionary definitions of a word that will figure in that chapter’s narrative. This was a fun way to keep the OED in our sights and a little history in our perspective. There were a number of words and phrases in the text that I had to go look up, too: manqué, astrakhan, vade mecum, pudicity, rebatos, Rhinegrave, perukes, nostalgie de la boue, tocsin, rebarbative, swingeing… and you know I always enjoy that part of my reading, too. (Haven’t convinced my students yet that it’s fun to learn new words, but I’m working on it.) So again, is this a book for word-nerds and OED fans? Emphatically yes; but not only for them (us). It’s also just a ripping tale, a bit sensational and pathos-ridden. If you like dramatic historical fiction, this one is for you, too.

Not perfect, no, but enormous fun.


Rating: 7 catchwords.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX by Karen Blumenthal

My Comp II classes got their library instruction early in the semester from our library director, who ran some searches on the big screen for them, including a number using Title IX as the sample topic. So I several times saw this title go across the screen, as a print, hard-copy book in the library on the topic. It’s a “juvenile” book, recommended for ages 8-12. I was curious, so I checked it out. (Why is this juvenile book in our college library? Who knows, but it got here by donation. I’m only the second person to check it out. I suspect our print collection doesn’t see much movement, even outside the juvenile shelves.)

Ages 8-12, sure; there were some points that were a little remedial for me, like the definition of a filibuster and how the legislature works, although I daresay many of us could use a review even there. And one of the points the book makes very well is that establishing federal law is wildly arduous, often a process that takes years, and much negotiation and compromise and heartache. The quest for near-consensus is admirable in theory, but in practice often means very slow or no progress.

Aside from a few issues that I didn’t need explained quite so well, though, even this ‘juvenile’ book was an excellent narrative. What the heck is Title IX? How did we get here? How far have we come? I have to say that I’ve never actually sat down to learn the story in such chronological fashion, and this book for 8-to-12-year-olds was engrossing.

When I started teaching college, I thought of Title IX as being the legislation that said girls could play sports too. When I was a little girl, that’s how I heard about it. I had some direct experience of the law, like when my middle school established a soccer team in my 8th grade year and because there was just the one team, it was necessarily coed. A few girlfriends and I got to play with the boys, and it was both a point of pride and at the same time no big deal. And I knew Title IX was the reason. But then I got to teach college, and Title IX had whole new dimensions. Nobody cares if the English professor knows the rules about equal sports opportunities, but it was very much a part of my training to know that I’m a mandatory reporter of disclosures of sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. That’s all Title IX, too: how little I knew. In its simplest form, this is legislation meant to address sex discrimination in educational settings. It’s been applied to equal pay and employment opportunities for teachers, admissions opportunities for students, access to fields of study, and more. But sports, it seems, remains the most visible and well-known area affected by Title IX, as evidenced by Blumenthal’s title.

(My classrooms are full of female athletes. I wonder if they realize how new a thing this still is.)

Let Me Play is a well-produced book. Chapters explain the context for Title IX, including the struggles for civil rights in the wider world, not only for women but for Black people and other people of color. It begins with women’s suffrage and situates events against two world wars. The text is written for a younger audience but is unafraid to use proper terminology (like filibuster!); I wonder if the finer points of government aren’t a bit complex for the stated age group, but what do I know. There are a good number of images, mostly photographs, and quick biographies of important figures along the way: mainly female athletes and legislators. Key events in history, sports, and politics flesh out the world in which Title IX was situated. I’m a fan of this model.

I also like the chapter titles, which are cute and help track progress over time.

There were a few moments I thought Blumenthal could have expanded the generally forward-thinking, inclusive nature of her book. References to “both genders” are out of date with our understanding of more than just the binary possibilities. In a sidebar she honors the dads who support their daughters, when I think the moms could probably have used a mention of their own. The author joins certain legislators in laughing at the ridiculousness of outlawing father-son and mother-daughter events, but I think that humor is misplaced, if we think about the experiences of sons with single mothers, daughters with single fathers, and all sorts of other family models (including nonbinary folks). This book was published in 2005, and times change quickly.

These instances aside, it’s a generally feel-good story about a long, fraught, painful process that has awarded girls and women options we didn’t used to enjoy. Importantly, too, Blumenthal does not stop at the feel-good story of success, but emphasizes that all is not now perfect (boys are still encouraged far more than girls are to pursue STEM subjects, for examples) and that these rights can always be stripped away. I have a lot of respect for her project here, and I find Let Me Play to be an awfully informative, moving, and important book for readers of all ages. (Also, I have never seen such copious endnotes, bibliography, research notes, further reading, and index in a book for children.) The clear storytelling and careful explanations that make it work for younger readers will benefit some older ones, too. I learned some history, and I was riveted at every moment. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 7 athletic bras.

Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin

This superb, multifaceted book takes a close look at gay bars individually and as concept, in history and in the author’s life, tackling big questions with wisdom and grace.

Jeremy Atherton Lin brings a wise, wry voice to his masterful Gay Bar: Why We Went Out. This thoughtful study is part memoir, part research project, part travelogue and a large part classic essay-as-assay, seeking answers on the page. His subtitle indicates a wondering: Why did we go out? The answers are various; they change over time and of course are personal for Lin, but he progresses toward an understanding of what the gay bar really was, is and might be. “The question arises as to what distinguishes an enclave from a quarantine, and whether either is any longer necessary.” If gay no longer needs a bar, is this a victory, or a loss?

“A salon of effete dandies engaged in witty banter, a lair of brutes in black leather, a pathetic spot on the edge of town flying a lackluster rainbow flag for its sole denizen–one lonely hard drinker. Of course, a gay bar can be all these things and more.” Gay Bar is a personal history and a history in the traditional, researched sense: it relates Lin’s coming-of-age as well as a world of gay bars, from the scintillating to the sordid, dating back hundreds of years. Seven sections are devoted to locations–bars or neighborhoods–and represent epochs, both in Lin’s life and in the lifetime of the gay bar. Lin’s specific bars are located in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, over the course of decades. He ranges through LGBTQ topics including protests, hate crimes, the gay rights movement, relationships with law enforcement, Stonewall and Harvey Milk, and gay-bar topics of sexual consent, music, booze, poppers and pills. Lin considers race, gender and class, and questions exploitation and appropriation. His broader subjects include community and identity, bar and nightlife culture, people’s relationships to place and more–this book has something for every reader.

Lin’s writing is consistently intriguing, descriptive and lovely: “the cranes and glassy high rises hover like chaperones.” As narrator he is by turns pensive, funny, self-deprecating, exasperated and reverent; he can be delightfully suggestive. “A pipe spilled chlorinated water. The brickwork had grown mossy down the length of its trajectory, like a viridescent trail-to-adventure on the building’s belly.” Gay Bar is enriched by the voices of others–thinkers in history, philosophy, literature and queer theory–but Lin never loses his own. This exploration is personal, deeply researched, smart and essential.


This review originally ran in the January 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mirrors.

“The American Paradox,” lectures by Heather Cox Richardson

If you haven’t been receiving Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email “Letters from an American,” you’ve been missing out. She’s also been producing (prodigiously) several series of lectures on YouTube, including “American Paradox,” which we’re told follows the main themes and points of her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War. The paradox Richardson refers to is baked thoroughly into this country: that “all men are created equal” but that “all” doesn’t mean “all”; non-white men, and non-men, as well as certain classes of men, have been excluded from the beginning, and quite purposefully so. As we’ve moved as a country toward the idea that more people should receive equal chances in life, there has been a traditional pushback that is still alive and well, based in the fear that more equality for some people somehow means less equality for the original “all men,” meaning white men with a certain amount of money and power. Richardson portrays these points through storytelling, beginning well before the founding of the U.S., and catching up with Trump’s presidency. This lecture series has nine installments of about an hour apiece.

I listened to Richardson speak while working around the house, which means she didn’t always have my total attention, but I still got a lot out of the experience. I love her infectious enthusiasm for her subject – I feel there’s nothing so inspirational as an expert really excited about their field, and she definitely qualifies. As she occasionally reminds us, she delivers these lectures without notes. It’s astonishing the depth of her knowledge, and I am very comfortable with the trade-off that she is sometimes unsure of a precise date. I also really love the connections Richardson makes across disciplines (something I’ve been working to show my students this past semester), like noting the trajectory of Shakespeare’s playwriting career against world history and technologies, as in: The Tempest‘s setting in the Bahamas places that late-career play in time, as England colonizes that part of the world, a project made possible by new designs in sails and therefore in the shapes of boats. Literature, world history, and shipbuilding technologies are all a part of the same story! This exhilarates me. She also includes references to popular books, movies and television at different points in history, noting their subtle political or ideological contributions to culture, which is a method I recognize from Stamped, where I also appreciated it.

The central paradox in our country-as-concept didn’t feel like a new idea to me, but I think she presents it so logically that this series could serve as an introduction. (Who doesn’t hear the irony in “all men are created equal,” I don’t know, but I guess they’re out there.) For me the most exciting aspects of these talks were Richardson’s mastery of her material, how neatly she integrates interdisciplinary material into a single thread, her avid storytelling, and the big-picture perspectives she brings (which is what I love most about her email Letters). She is definitely, as my father says, a “history wonk,” a geek (I say in the most loving spirit) who excels at and loves storytelling. As my father again notes, this can “result in some enthusiastic ‘really cool!’ diversions into personalities and anecdotes that risk diluting her narrative,” and she sometimes has to pause to clarify that a story might be ‘really cool’ in terms of research and meaning-making, while being abhorrent in terms of what actually happened. This can be a bit jarring, but I think if we accept Richardson’s history-geekness, we can appreciate what she has to offer, which is an extraordinary body of knowledge and ability to draw connections and see patterns, and a boundless, contagious love for her work. I’d take a history class with her any day.

If you’re still learning our history (and who isn’t?) and if you feel that it sheds light on our present and future (which I think it certainly does), I highly recommend Richardson’s expert teachings, free and online for the taking.


Rating: 9 mules downstream.

The Book of Rabbits by Vince Trimboli

Disclosure: Vince is a colleague and a dear friend.


A slim poetry collection with a story at its center: Mary Toft was a young peasant woman in 18th-century England who became famous after she gave birth to more than 15 dead rabbits. The sensational story had doctors scratching their heads and the whole country riveted, until it was found to be a hoax. (This is a true story.) Throughout The Book of Rabbits, Trimboli pokes and prods at this history, questions of gender, womanhood, motherhood, class, family, agency… Some poems deal directly with the woman and the rabbits, while some approach its themes from more oblique angles, but the questions raised by Toft’s story are always present. Part of his concern is who gets to relate these events to us, centuries later. Toft herself was illiterate, at any rate in a time when women’s voices were not much valued.

A foreword by Nancy Lynée Woo gives some of this important background information on Toft’s story – I think the reader needs it – and also describes and assesses the collection some, in ways I found very helpful (because you know poetry still intimidates me). I’m a little tempted to just reprint her whole foreword here as a review, if that weren’t a copyright violation!

I love the variation of forms. There are a handful of haikus, some prose poems (some segmented), and some in different shapes on the page. There is no shortage of lovely, surprising, and thoughtful images: as Catherine Venable Moore states in a blurb on the back cover, “Rare is the poet who sees fire opals in a case of deli meats.” I puzzled over some poems, and I took advantage of having excellent access to the poet himself (Vince and I talk several times a week and sometimes daily) to ask some questions. A few poems included a pronoun whose antecedent was unclear; I considered possibilities and then asked. The author confirmed that that ambiguity was purposeful, as I suspected… I often appreciate syntactic ambiguity, but sometimes I’m not sure it’s intended. I figured it was here. “Some say this is the easiest part of being human,” Trimboli writes, in a section involving several actions; what is ‘this’? Ambiguities like this both thrill and unnerve me.

I’ve heard Vince read from this book a handful of times, so a number of these poems felt familiar, which doesn’t mean I’m not still grappling with what they mean. But I know that I love how he pushes against the gendered tensions of control, choice, and voice. There’s plenty to keep coming back to here, for someone like me who puzzles over poetry.

Some of my favorite poems are “This Is a Story About Poverty,” “Notes from a Field Trip to the Slaughterhouse,” “The Fourth Dream: Deus Ex Machina,” and of course a longtime favorite, “Haiku: Anatomy” (which confused a male undergraduate of mine this semester – naturally). I love lines like…

meats too rich for her purse

postpartum change purse

all pearls are traumas

fear is as much a part of hunger as the eating

And I think there’s a lot here to think about. Glad to know you, Vince.


Rating: 8 gossamer sacks.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Liz recommended this book to me (in the audio format) as an excellent, succinct, accessible history of racism (including its purposeful invention) and antiracism, and she was (as usual) right. This is an outstanding introduction to, or review of, the concepts of race and racism in this country, in the context of world history. It’s truly for everyone: those new to such a history will find it manageable, and those not new will learn something new or at least have that larger picture – race in America within world history – clarified in useful ways. The audiobook is just four hours long, and every minute of it is engrossing. I wholeheartedly second Liz’s recommendation.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a “remix” of Ibrim X. Kendi’s highly-regarded Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s approximately half the length (300 vs. 600 pages). I have not read the latter, fuller version, but my father should be finishing it anytime, and he’s appreciative; perhaps he’ll give us a review to partner with this one. Tables of contents show that the content of each books lines up neatly; they do appear to be two versions of the same material, and I think it’s a real service to give both versions to the world. For this remix, Kendi is joined by young adult novelist Jason Reynolds, who also narrates the audio version (excepting the introduction, delivered by Kendi). It’s my impression that Reynolds does the remixing of Kendi’s original work, bringing his facility with younger readers. The book is labeled for ages 12 and up, but to characterize this as a book for younger readers is too limiting; it’s great for adults, too.

The opening chapter begins,

This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!). This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book.

And I want to start there because I’m interested in that characterization of what makes a history book. Between you and me, I would like to assert that this is a history book, but I get what the authors are up to here: for those younger readers (or for all of us!), they’re trying to distance themselves from the dry and boring history book, the traditional history book, that separates “history” from what matters in the here-and-now. I think this is a history book, in all the best ways – one for history books to emulate.

Having gotten that out of the way: five sections organize the broad scope of this history. They are organized by years. “Section 1: 1415-1728” opens with “The Story of the World’s First Racist.” (In Stamped From the Beginning [SFtB], Part I is titled “Cotton Mather.” He is not the world’s first racist – that title goes to Gomes Eanes de Zurara.) “Section 2: 1743-1826” corresponds to SFtB‘s “Thomas Jefferson.” “Section 3: 1826-1879” corresponds to William Lloyd Garrison; “Section 4: 1868-1963” is W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Section 5: 1963-Today” is Angela Davis. Those section headings from SFtB appeal to me. Obviously the date ranges handle more than the lives of each individual, but I appreciate the choice of an individual for each section of history, and of the progress of racism in America. Methodically, then, Kendi & Reynolds move through history from the 1400s, and Zurara’s invention of racism (in Europe), to the present day. They hit the highlights in terms of events, personalities, laws, cultural shifts, and theories of race and racism and antiracism, the intellectual arguments offered for why some people should be kept under the boots of other people. I love that they note the markers in media and art for racist thinking, too, commenting on the timing and context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, and Planet of the Apes. I’m a big fan of spotting the connections across (what we think of as) disparate threads of history and study: movies, literature, history. I think it deepens our understanding of each to see how they fit together.

I found Reynolds’s audio narration completely lovely, and would listen to anything else he reads.

I understand that SFtB is an excellent, deep, rich, dense study. I know I have a lot to learn from it, and I hope to get to it sooner than later. The work of a book like that is important. But I’m so grateful that Stamped exists, too. It’s a truly masterful achievement to make such a swath of history so accessible in just 300 pages, and there are some pretty involved theories and concepts expressed here in a package that I think anyone can grasp (again, it’s labeled for ages 12 and up). I think this book is likely to reach even more people than SFtB. As Liz suggested, I can realistically recommend this one to my first-year college students. This is a book for anyone and everyone. It proves, through history and observations and stories, that we are not living in a post-racial world; racism (and a caste system based upon race) is alive and well in this country and culture, even if it’s learned to disguise itself – that just makes it more important that we learn how to recognize it in its trickier forms. Stamped is the book to help us begin that work. Recommended for everyone.


Rating: 9 privileges.
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