What happens when an aging Italian filmmaker realizes that women no longer look at him with desire? He makes a film about the experience, of course.
Gianni e Le Donne, or The Salt of Life, is a semi-autobiographical film that follows the film’s hero, played by the filmmaker himself, in his hapless (yet always polite) attempts at romance and flirtation. Charming, poignant, slightly melancholy, and funny in a poker-faced way, the movie is also a feast for the eyes with its lovely scenes of Rome.
Audre Lorde in a film still from director Dagmar Schultz’s “The Berlin Years: 1984-1992.”
Sister Outsider was published in June of 1984, and more than thirty years on, Audre Lorde’s essays and speeches around racism, sexism, homophobia, and on many other themes—women’s relationships, anger vs hatred, communication, responsibility, love—remain as powerful and empowering as ever.
From The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect…
And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger…
In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear- fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.
…For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition…
The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
Lorde died of cancer in 1992. Re-reading her work this June, I wonder what she might write about today…reflecting and calling as strongly as ever for individuals and communities to grow, break silence, recognize, and hear one another?
“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?”
I don’t know the last time I read something that I loved as much as Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This happens to be her debut novel, which blows me away. If you love family sagas that make the family trees in the opening pages necessary to refer to, this is the book for you.
Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of 2, said she was initially inspired to write this book after she visited the Cape Coast Castle. In Homegoing she introduces us to Effia and Esi, half-sisters born in 18th-century West Africa. While Effia becomes the bride of a British slave-trader and goes to live in the Cape Coast Castle, Esi become a slave living in the dungeons of the castle awaiting the trip to the New World. Homegoing then follows generations of their descendants, free and enslaved, on both sides of the ocean. Each chapter follows the story of a different character, moving forward in time from one generation to the next. From these stories of Effia and Esi’s descendants grow “two branches split from the same tree.”
Extraordinary for its beautiful language, Homegoing is a portrait of what it means to belong, both to a nation and to a family, and the forces that shape those nations and families. Gyasi packs so much into each of the short chapters and she accomplishes it all with the astounding efficiency of just 300 pages. Trust me, you won’t be able to put this book down.
“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”
When I read Roger Rosenblatt’s work of fiction Thomas Murphy, pre-Orlando but post- so many other, earlier mankind-vs-itself horrors, this quote grabbed me. It is posted desk-side where I can read it anytime my eyes wander from workaday whatevers:
“That’s all civil rights means anyway—returning to a state of natural dignity.The movements are called revolutionary, but they are really restorative.”
The italics are mine because important things assume italic formation in my head, but the bold-ness of the statement (if not of the typeface) comes from the main character, Thomas Murphy himself.
Thomas is a character, all right: a poet whose memory is likely failing (he awaits clinical proof), possessor of a meandering mode of expression (oh! how I love a fellow meanderer!), blessed and cursed with a cast of acquaintances, living and dead, that makes for an extraordinary ordinary life. For a fictional fella, he makes more sense than he ought.
Perhaps it is only in fiction that a statement of the obvious, like his regarding civil rights, can hope to stand without assault. Perhaps it is up to real folk like us to take his assertion into the world and see the sense it makes.
Fiction is a vehicle for truth. Nonfiction can mislead. Tragedies are tragic. Love is love. We are what we are. We all yearn for the restoration of our natural dignity.
Imagine that Peter Pan wakes up in Neverland one day feeling uncertain about his signature stance on adulthood, and the only way he can process this identity crisis is to make three jangly punk records. I go through regular phases where the only albums I want to listen to are these, preferably while driving, windows down. Bonus points for sunglasses that make me feel tough, but like, in a sensitive way. These smart and bittersweet power pop classics are available to stream with your library card via Hoopla along with the rest of the Replacements’ catalogue. (If you prefer CDs, Let It Be and Pleased to Meet Me can be found in PPL’s collection, but you’ll have to go through ILL to get your hands on Tim, my personal favorite).
There are also some experiences I will, I know, share with others (and still, we’ll experience them so differently): illness, probably; loss of loved ones, and the end of life. I’ve been drawn lately to writers sharing these sorts of stories (see last August’s staff pick: Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World). This interest, I hope, isn’t too morbid. It feels part of the curiosity I have for all that I don’t know about—what lies close around me, or far from me, and what might lie ahead.
Here’s three from a booklist of memoirs on these themes: Roger Angell writes beautifully, wryly, intelligently on life in his nineties, along with “a dog’s breakfast” of other collected writing in This Old Man: All in Pieces. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (and now memoirist) Tracy K. Smith writes about so very many things, including race, history, and faith, radiating from the death of her mother in Ordinary Light. And Katharine Norbury writes slowly, luminously on grief, family, and the wilds of Great Britain in The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream. One day, in her meditative wandering outdoors, Norbury’s eye is caught by a bright gravestone…it’s a small moment in the book, but the simple last words carved on the stone stay with her, and also remain with me: Glad did I live.
One of the sculptors that I had learned about early in my art career was Alberto Giacometti. THE biographer of his life was acknowledged to be James Lord. His early piece, “A Giacometti Portrait,” was considered seminal, so imagine my joy when Lord did his opus: a massive tome on Giacometti’s life. I read the entire thing while bedridden with the flu. Lord’s writings are not the usual dry renditions of “first the artist went there, then he went over here.” Instead Lord manages to help you picture Giacometti’s life, as though Giacometti was not a legend, but a man you could identify with, and follow, until his breakthrough with the sculptures that he is famous for.
Maggie Nelson is a master of interlacing literary forms and defying expectations of genre. With last year’s memoir, she seamlessly moves across blurred boundaries of theory, poetry, and deeply personal reflection. The Argonauts queers everything you thought you knew about motherhood, gender, family, and the body while treating you to some fiercely gorgeous prose.
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” ― Nelson Mandela
Honestly, if this book doesn’t lift you up and encourage you to get out and make a difference – I am not sure what will.
My choice is Girl in a Bandby Kim Gordon, because she has been a hero of mine since I was 12, both for style and substance. Sonic Youth is my life.
One unique aspect of this musician bio that I really enjoyed was that Gordon never talks about learning how to play bass. At one point in her life she doesn’t play music, and then she does. There is no explanation necessary. At first this bothered me, but then I got it, man.
This is also a book about dissolution of a long musical and romantic partnership, but Gordon keeps it classy and minimal. She somehow makes you feel the pain of betrayal with just a few key sentences peppered throughout.
This is an incredible story that I most recommend as an audio book. Hirsi Ali provides the narration herself, and her delightful accent infuses her experience of Islam with supreme gentleness. Hirsi Ali’s life was remarkable, and her courage and stubbornness served her well. This book is a history lesson in Muslim and African culture, and the author describes how she was able to learn many languages as her family moved to different locales in search of political asylum. She is a force to be reckoned with as she navigates her life and walks a thin line between terror and truth. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about the outcry against violence and oppression of women. Hirsi Ali is a heroine for those who are voiceless.
What struck me the most was the fine writing, vivid detail, the stories themselves, the unbelievable characters (i.e. racist parents she loves deeply), brutal honesty, plenty of humor, and the sheer courage and heart of Alexandra throughout her adventurous life. I hate the “whine about, yet overcome weepers” popular now, but I love these. She had me with the great first two titles.”
Gloria Steinem has always been one of my heroes. I’ve read everything by her and this new collection intimately chronicling her Life on the Road is wonderful and engaging. She is very candid about her early years, what she gained and what she had to give up by living a nomadic lifestyle. Each of the seven chapters begins with a photo and each reveals something new about the author and activist. Steinem reveals her ties and relationships to other women and activists. My favorite was the chapter where she describes her friendship with Native American and feminist activist, Wilma Mankiller. For many people, we look at what she has done and that is how we define her. However, it seems that these relationships are how she defines her life. We should all be so lucky.
I wrote down many quotes from this book, this is one of my favorites:
“As Robin Morgan wrote so wisely, ‘Hate generalizes, love specifies.’ That’s what makes going on the road so important. It definitely specifies.”
This stunning book reaffirmed my love of memoirs. I finished it in less than one day. I always appreciate when an author takes the time to fashion a distinct approach to telling us their story (versus giving us a simple chronology of their life). Sometimes they break their story down into ideas and how their experiences helped them form these ideas, like Amy Poehler’s wise and interesting Yes Please. Sometimes, as Alan does here, they find one experience or person to use as a springboard for telling us their larger story. Alan uses his struggle with an abusive father as the entry point for us to learn about his life and thoughts. Alan seems like a beautiful person, he is a very talented storyteller and I hope he writes many more books. In this case, the cliché is true: “I laughed, I cried…”
I have come to believe that true wisdom and kindness spring from overcoming adversity, often with humor, and Alan’s story supports this theory. It was good for me to read this book and I think it would be good for you too. (PS If Alan’s introductions of Masterpiece: Mystery! always seem too short for you too, try the audiobook, which I imagine is also a wonderful way to experience this story.
As April comes to a close, our staff reflects on poets and poetry we love–and celebrate–all year long.
A poem and illustration from “Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It”
I knew from the moment this hilarious little collection landed in my lap (recommended by a friendly fellow Children’s staffer from a neighboring town) that it must be my selection this month: Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems by Gail Carson Levine and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. Treat yourself to the delightful backstory of this style of poetry (detailed on pages 22 and 23), devised by the doctor and poet William Carlos Williams and involving stolen plums. It’s hard to pick one favorite from the bunch, so here are two. Notice the wonderfully similar structure of each:
(I will not be reciting that last one at my next story time.)
So next time you have to apologize for something that may or may not have been your fault…take a deep breath and compose a poem.
One of Erik Blegvad’s beautiful illustrations from “Hurry, Hurry…”
If you find an entire collection of poetry a bit weighty, try PPL’s lighthearted picture book, “Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear”. The book consists of a single poem written by N M Bodecker. Illustrations by Erik Blegvad perfectly capture the sly, witty tone of the poem, as Mary rushes about trying to finish all the chores the narrator thinks she should do before winter sets in. A great read-aloud for kids.
Wishes, Lies, and Dreams is an absolute goldmine of kids’ writing that boasts some of the funniest and wisest snippets of poetry I’ve ever read. Some are totally goofy and meandering, some are sharp and sincere, and many combine elements of both. A personal favorite:
I grew up in a very literary household full of thousands of books. Over the years, bits and pieces of these books flit in and out of my thoughts. My mother must have had a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Fireflies, as one poem has remained with me to this day:
If you enjoy Eastern poetry such as Rumi, I would highly recommend spending an afternoon with Tagore.
One of my favorite poems is Raymond Carver’s Waiting, from his collection All of Us. I first heard it at a friend’s wedding, and it seemed to perfectly describe the twists and turns that lead us to where we’re supposed to be.
My first pick is Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy. One of the reasons I like this poem so much is that pays homage to the unknown soldier, and couples the unknowingness of death with eternal aspects of life and the world. Hardy’s work was also a major influence on Dylan Thomas.
Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front is one of those poems I read when I’m aghast with the world. It seems to offer a guide to living, inspiring, actionable words that help the reader to remember what is really important in life. Listening more than speaking, being happy just noticing the movements of the earth, not needing dollars and fancy vacations to be at peace.
Finally, “Shake the Dust” by Anis Mojgani is another inspiring poem for me. I strongly encourage it to be experienced aurally, like this performance here. Mojgani is so expressive, and his words instill confidence, hope, and faith that every human experience has value, purpose, and importance. It gives me the same kind of foot-tapping excitement that a piece of upbeat music brings, and the phrase “shake the dust” is one I have come to hold as a special mantra for being fearless when I feel the most timid.
Good poetry is a subjective label. Sometimes it isn’t the poem itself that touches us, but the associations it has.
My mother passed away in April, five years ago. Standing by her grave in the mid-May blossom-filled Mount Auburn cemetery where John Ciardi, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are spending eternity, my sisters and I shared recollections of our kind mother, Marjorie.
The older of my two sisters told the story of her second grade school assignment: select, memorize and recite a poem, a process that had bogged down at “select,” driving her seven-year-old self to the end of her tightly-wound perfectionist rope as the deadline approached. In her trademark over-achieving fashion, she aimed way beyond necessity and expectations, fretting and sweating over pieces that were too long, too hard, too everything… until our mother, who always seemed to know how to make things better, offered an idea. A poem that was not too long. Not too serious. Just the thing.
55 years later, in the cool of a spring morning, my sister recited that poem again:
The May 1895 issue of The Lark in which “The Purple Cow” first appeared.
The Purple Cow
(Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least.)