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Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.

 

I was chatting with a professor at work last week about what we’d each read over the holiday break and he mentioned Slade House. Longtime bookconscious readers know I’ve enjoyed several other titles by David Mitchell, and actually The Computer Scientist had pointed out Slade House to me when it first came out, so I went to the stacks and checked it out.

It’s a trip of a book, from it’s strange little format (in the hardcover edition we have at the library, which is square and has a cut-out cover exposing an Escher-esque maze of stairs) to the idea of the novel itself – that twins Norah and Jonah Grayer have learned the secret of immortality. Both “engifted” with psychic powers, they hone their mystical skills until they have perfected luring other unsuspecting engifteds, usually people who are misfits in the world, and take what they need from them to go on living (I don’t want to give away the whole story). You can guess that doesn’t end well for the victims.

The other premise of the book is that Slade House, where the twins’ strange and nasty work is done, doesn’t exist in the physical plane of the world, but in an “orison” of a house that was bombed in WWII. The door to reach the garden of the great old house appears every nine years in Slade Alley. So the victims are from different decades in each chapter.

It’s a short book (it took me a week because I’m also reading another book), and it feels like an over-grown short story to me. I understand that it’s related to The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t read. I enjoyed Slade House even though it left me wanting to know more about both Jonah and Norah (I would have liked to have read about their growing up, discovering their gifts, and honing them — we get all that as backstory told by another character) and their victims, who we meet only as they are lured into Slade House. Still, Mitchell is a good writer and he tells a compelling tale.

I like the kind of story that makes you look around and think “What if . . . ?” as in “What if there really were engifteds around here somewhere?” Let’s face it even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe in ghosts and never considers metaphysical questions, an awful lot of people do, and an awful lot of people claim to have experienced the presence of someone who is no longer in the physical world. I think as long as there have been stories, and as long as there are stories, people will place their hopes and fears about what happens when we die, whether a part of us (soul, spirit, ghost, or whatever you call it) goes on and if so where it goes, how existence works. So brief as it may be, Slade House, gets to the heart of that and its appeal is in this universal hope or fear (or both).

Back soon with the nonfiction book I’ve nearly finished.

 

 

I finished The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago and have been avoiding writing about it. I think the author is passionate about her topic. It’s interesting. There is a whole group of girls who are dressed as boys in order to uphold their families’ honor and provide them with someone who can run errands, escort the girls and women to school and shopping, etc. When Jenny Nordberg found out about these “bacha posh” she was intrigued and began a quest to find and record the stories of current or former bacha posh.

Nordberg makes some very important points about international efforts in Afghanistan. By focusing so much on the rights of girls and women, westerners have fed the notion that gender equality is “against men.” Nordberg posits that by focusing so much on women in a place where many men cannot find work to support their families, NGOs and foreign powers have further entrenched the patriarchy. And that in a society where men literally control every move women make, “Men are the key to infiltrating and subverting patriarchy.”

Sensible, right? The stories are wrenching, but how wonderful that someone told them, right? The issues the books raises about gender roles and gender identity deserve wide attention and are really vital issues in our world. But for some reason, I just did not love this book, and I can’t really explain why. I usually enjoy books about hard topics, or books that challenge accepted wisdom, or examine the status quo in new ways. I think both the subject and the writing in The Underground Girls of Kabul are compelling.

I leave you with this mystery, dear readers. For unexplained reasons, I just didn’t like this perfectly deserving book. It’s different than a full on reading funk, where no book appeals, because I’ve started a couple of other titles since this one and am liking them well enough. Anyone else experience this lately?

 

I’m off this week, and I am enjoying extra reading time. First, I finished a book the former “Teen the Elder” (longtime bookconscious readers may be surprised to learn he is now in his twenties; take the links to see what he’s up to now) recommended, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. An extended version of a piece Junger wrote for Vanity Fair, this book explores the ways in which human nature is best suited to tribal life. In other words, life in a close knit community where members are committed to looking after each other’s basic needs — food and safety. It’s an interesting book.

Junger isn’t the first to argue that the deep malaise of modern life is caused by the lack of opportunity for most people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. His focus is on the way warfare and disasters bring people together and reduce crime, mental illness, and even suicide in the immediate aftermath.  He also argues that PTSD, which is diagnosed (as well as misdiagnosed) at higher rates in the US than anywhere else, is not necessarily  caused by trauma, but re-entry into society.

“Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy.” A few pages on, Junger continues, ” A modern soldier returning from combat . . . goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society — and they’re nearly miraculous — the individualizes lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

I couldn’t help but think of something I read recently about pharmaceutical companies pathologizing normal if unpleasant aspects of human existence in order to profit from “curing” them with prescriptions. Junger found that we treat the response to trauma or violence that way too, which “creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” I don’t think people should just “get over it” and neither does Junger, but I wonder if by making a lot of things our ancestors treated as unfortunate but natural parts of life as maladies that need treatment, we are possibly making things worse?

Junger doesn’t really have a solution in mind; he points out that the current conflict between liberal and conservative views on poverty and social well being in the U.S. are actually not at odds according to our evolutionary instincts (abhorrence of freeloaders who were a threat to overall wellbeing and a communal caring for the genuinely needy). If these theories were considered as equally important (as he argues they were in traditional societies) and applied together, we’d be in good shape, but he (and most people) doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. When he asked a doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital how we could unify our society she says something very simple: ” . . . underscore your shared humanity.”

I feel as if there are many opportunities on a local level to do that  — volunteering, belonging to a church or temple or mosque, joining a club, having lunch with a new coworker, taking cookies to a new neighbor, etc. — and while we may be appear to be failing on a macro level, there is hope in the fact that many people are trying to make their own communities more caring, close-knit places. For example, these neighbors, honored by the Boston Globe in their annual roundup of Bostonians making a difference. Everyone benefits when we act altruistically — research seems to indicate that helping others makes people happier. So maybe there’s hope? Even if you think our society is entirely self-interested, sometimes that self-interest can lead to greater good.

The novel The Association of Small Bombs deals with the same questions and issues  as Tribe (or at least I saw it that way, reading them right after each other – the bookconscious theory of interconnectedness at work). It’s a novel set primarily in Delhi, and it’s about the lives impacted by a terrorist bombing in a market. We meet two of the Kashmiri Muslim separatists, one an ideas man and the other a bomb maker, and also the parents of two boys who died in the blast. Their friend, Mansoor, who is Muslim himself, survives, but his young life is deeply impacted. He gets involved with an NGO working to bring attention to the accused bombers who languish in jail for years while the corrupt police and justice system often miss the real terrorists. Through the NGO he comes to meet Ayub, another Muslim, who ends up being drawn into an extremist group, and meets the very bomb maker whose blast injured Mansoor and killed his friends.

That these people would be drawn together in an interlocking set of storylines in one of the most populous cities in the world seems slightly improbable, but Mahajan makes it relatively believable. On the surface, all of the main characters lead relatively purposeless lives; even those who think they are acting out of conviction turn out to be making very little difference. Ayub thinks, “In the end, his role was so small, he felt foolish about the buildup, the training, the wating . . . . Some people will die, he thought, that’s true. But they’ll expand the market’s security after the blast. . . . No — I’m only doing the inevitable . . . . I’m pointing out the flaws in the system. Terror is a form of urban planning.”

I’m still processing that. It’s an interesting way to consider terror. The cooperative society Junger refers to exists in this novel among the terrorists and among the young people in the NGO but doesn’t appear sustainable in either case. The other adults who are not in either group lead the kinds of alienated lives that Junger describes; even their families don’t provide a sustained sense of shared humanity. It’s an eye-opening novel with a bleak view of humankind. I admired it, I think it’s an important book that deals with vital questions, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it very much.

 

 

I absolutely loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette,  so I was excited to read Maria Semple‘s latest novel, Today Will Be Different. Eleanor Flood, the protagonist, was the animation director on an edgy TV show. She does freelance illustration in Seattle; she has a book deal for a graphic novel (which is embedded in Today Will Be Different) based on her childhood, but it’s eight years overdue. Her husband, Joe, is a famous hand surgeon who works with the Seahawks. They have a son, Timby, who applies makeup when he thinks his mother isn’t looking, and a dog, Yo-Yo. She knows her life would be the envy of most people, but she’s at loose ends, feeling middle aged, useless, and lost.

For one thing, she hasn’t seen her sister Ivy in years, because of her controlling, unhinged brother-in-law. For another, she gets the sense that Joe is up to something. On a morning when she vows that her day will be different — she’ll be her “best self” — she instead ends up on a madcap adventure around Seattle, with Timby, who says he has a stomach ache but is really being bullied at school, and Yo-Yo, at least part of the time, in tow.

It’s impossible not to root for Eleanor — who among us hasn’t meant to be our best selves, and found it perpetually impossible? And if you enjoyed Semple’s gentle but persistent humorous critique of upper middle class privileged angst in her earlier work, you’ll laugh at it again here. But Today Will Be Different, like Where’d You Go Bernadette, isn’t just wacky and fun, it has a deep vein of emotional, and this time even spiritual, truth to explore. It’s a book about love in many forms, and about being who we are in a world that constantly tempts us to be otherwise. And in Eleanor’s case, it’s about healing from a past that comes back to stir up her psyche no matter how much she tries to let it go, or sometimes, to banish it.

“Deep down, Eleanor knew she must have been born a warmer soul. She wasn’t meant to be so self reliant.” And deep down we know that as much as we may giggle at her exploits, and roll our eyes at some of the ridiculous ways people in this book act, Eleanor’s warm soul will lift her out of the funk she’s in. We get the sense that Eleanor will let herself rely on Timby and Joe and even Yo-Yo, who love her and know they can count on her even when she’s “mean,” one of Timby’s frequent complaints. I won’t tell you the plot twists or how things end, but I will say that despite everything, readers come to the final page feeling love can prevail over just about anything, even Eleanor Flood. And don’t we all need a little reminding of that?

I’m not sure what to say about this book that will do it justice — it’s a good read, a novel that both tells a story and speaks truth, and it made me feel my white privilege acutely. Adichie manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking, and she takes readers into communities and cultures many of us don’t know. It you’ve read booksconscious for long, you know that for me, that’s pretty much the total package — good writing, truth, transport, compelling narrative. Oh, and characters who are alive.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and her childhood sweetheart Obinze. They come of age in Nigeria under military rule and both get fed up with the university strikes and decide to leave. Ifemelu follows her Aunty Uju to America, where she finds things are not what she expected. Obinze, denied an American visa, ends up trying his luck in England, where he has a cousin. I don’t want to give away details of what happens to each of them, but readers follow their struggles and successes until, full circle, the story returns to Nigeria.

Part of the story is that Ifemelu writes a blog about racism; in America she experiences being black for the first time (late in the book she tells a white American “I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black). The blog posts in the novel are particularly relevant, painful reading now.  She also writes in a refreshing way about the immigrant experience. I know refugees in my community, and I know how shocking it has been for them to come here and experience the reality of America as compared the image they held while waiting to come here. I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that some people, not refugees but other immigrants, don’t find what they are seeking and return to their countries. That’s not the story we’re told about the American Dream. I appreciated the view that America isn’t the end of people’s stories in this book.

Adiche, describing Ifemelu’s discovery of Obinze’s favorite books in her local library in Philadelphia, writes, “how could a string of words make a person ache for a place he did not know?” Of course, I recognized that feeling. If you do too, you will find that familiar, pleasant ache in Americanah. The thing is you might also ache for a place you do know — America. But right now, I can’t think of a better way to do that than to read fiction.

Bilgewater by Jane Gardam

I was adrift without a book to read on election day and after, having finished up reading a novel for Kirkus, and picked up Jane Gardam because she is wonderful, and because at times of turmoil, there is nothing like a new (to me) novel by a favorite author.

Gardam didn’t disappoint. Bilgewater, like God on the Rocks, Crusoe’s Daughter, and A Long Way from Verona, features a young female protagonist. In this case, Marigold Green, is in her final year of school, and lives with her widower father in St. Wilfrid’s school for boys (who nickname her Bilgewater), with their formidable matron Paula in the north of England.

Marigold says, “I never felt that Paula found me very important though. Far from it. She never had favourites. There is a great sense of inevocable justice about her and although one had the sensation that her devotions and emotions ran deep and true you never found her ready to discuss them–not the loving emotions anyway. . . . For me she had from the start a steady unshakeable concern that wrapped me round like a coat. . . . But she has never tried to mother me. She’s not a soft woman, Paula. She cannot stand slop of any kind and again and again she says– it’s her dictum, her law unquestionable– BEWARE OF SELF PITY.”

And so Marigold attempts to live by Paula’s dictum through awkward adolescence and preparation for Oxbridge entrance exams, and a crush, and a friend who disappoints her, and a lot of emotional disarray. At one point the awful friend tells Paula that Marigold is “mad.” Paula retorts, “Marigold’s not mad. That’s one thing certain . . . . She sees clear and pure and sometimes it’s a bit more than she nor anybody can bear.”

Gardam is a master of this kind of thing — a couple of sentences that not only capture something essential in the human experience, but are also achingly lovely. I come away from every Gardam novel wanting to be friends with her characters, and with her, and to write like her, or just to write half as well as she does.

If you’re looking for something real and true and beautiful (and yes, good fiction should be all of those things) to read these days, you cannot go wrong with any of Gardam’s work, and Bilgewater would be a wonderful place to start.