Powell Center Weekend Reads

Hari Kunzru's new novel Gods without Men unfolds in beautiful and unexpected ways and is a highly recommended read. It’s been a pretty busy week, and so I haven’t gotten as much reading done as I would have liked.  Nevertheless, I did have time to tackle the following:

  • There must be a significant lull in online traffic over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  How else to explain their decision to run this disgraceful piece of racist bile attacking Black Studies departments? I won’t dignify the author, Naomi Schaefer Riley, or her lazy, irresponsible hit job with further comment. Instead, I’ll only suggest that you take some time to read the response Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, La Tasha B. Levy, Ruth Hays–three students that Schaefer Riley singles out for ridicule–offered.  As one friend remarked, it demonstrates who the adults are in the conversation.
  • In the spirit of this Tuesday’s amazing May Day actions across the country, and particularly in New York City, I can’t recommend highly enough the latest edition of n+1′s Occupy! gazette.  There’s a ton of great stuff inside, including a superb profile of The People’s Kitchen, and a recap of the debate on student debt some weeks back at the New School which featured the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal, Sarah Jaffe, David Graeber, Brian Kalkbrenner and Astra Taylor.
  • Speaking of Mike Konczal, his latest essay for Jacobin on the incarceration state and possible ways forward in thinking about reform is a comprehensive, insightful, and clearheaded take on the subject. A must read article.
  • On Wednesday evening, I had the honor of being Steven Thrasher’s guest at the PEN World Voices Festival opening performance featuring the incredible Kronos Quartet, Salman Rushdie, Tony Kushner, Marjane Satrapi and Rula Jebreal.  It was an, uh, interesting night of music, poetry, and discussion.  Steven wrote it up for the Village Voice–his take more or less mirrors mine pretty directly.  I thought Jebreal was pretty insipid, uninteresting, and uninspired.  Then I found out that she’s the partner of Julian Schanbel, and suddenly it all made sense…
  • On a more somber note, the death of Adam Yauch–formerly MCA of the Beastie Boys–came as a sad surprise this morning.  The forty-eight year-old Yauch passed away after a years-long battle with cancer.  I suspect that there will be a ton of press and profiles in the days to come, many of them from legends in the music industry which the Beasties helped revolutionize in the early 1980s.  In the meantime, my old friend Allan Raible, a music critic for ABC News, had one of the first tributes to the fallen rapper which to my mind is pitch perfect. You can read it here.

In addition to these pieces, I also finished three books this past week:

  • Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen is a breezy novel in style, though its substance is hardly light. Told through the perspective of an overweight, drug-loving, cooking-addict loser who desperately just wants to fall in love and be loved,  the book tells the tale of Eli Schwartz and his adventures with a new friend–the once famous movie star and now paraplegic Seymour Kahn who share little in life aside from a love of cocaine, sex, and their own misery.  At the end of the day, the book is a take-it-or-leave-it offering–often too clever by half but with moments of grace and beautifully rendered sentences that convey the emotional difficulties of those just starting out on life, and those who drawing theirs to a close.
  • Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, in contrast, is a brilliant tour de force of storytelling.  The novel features far too many strands of narrative that dance around one another–conceptually and geographically–throughout different periods of history but which all build on and reinforce one another.  I had seen Kunzru in discussion with Teju Cole some weeks back at the New York Public Library, and so the book’s thematic thrust was not a surprise. And still, the book unfolded in completely beautiful, unexpected ways and developed a rhythm which made it impossible to put down at times.  Very highly recommended.
  • More academically, Monica Serrano and Paul Kenny’s Mexico’s Security Failure, a look at the country’s institutional instability in matters of public safety and other primary social goods, offers a masterful overview of the ways in which Mexico’s tradition of authoritarianism continues to embed itself within the current structures of its modern democracy.  The various contributors pound away at various aspects of the country’s “collapse into criminal violence” and paint a truly grim picture of the corrosiveness of illicit actors while drawing an important distinction between the notions of “security failure”–which lead to one set of policy recommendations–and less well-defined “state failure”–which leads to an entirely different one.  In the case of the latter, the book’s various authors agree that “as strenuously as possible, this book contends that those polices are the worst road for a state with security problems like Mexico’s to go down. In the short term, they increase violence; in the mid-term, they compromise the armed forces; and in the long term, they make the state more authoritarian. The paradox is cruel but undeniable: responding only to the imperatives of the failed state agenda is leaving the Mexican state the worse.”—Michael Busch
  • Michael Busch is coordinator of the Colin Powell Program in Leadership and Public Service. Read more about him and our other contributors here.