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Archive for July, 2017

Much of my reading lately has been about strong women; Night Waking is a novel about Anna Bennett, Dr. Bennett as she introduces herself to the police officer who insists on calling her Mrs. Cassingham (her husband Giles’ surname) when they interview her about the infant skeleton she and her son Raphael accidentally dug up as they planted an apple tree. Anna is an Oxford Fellow, working on a history of childhood in the 18th century. She’s with her family, Giles and Raphael and Timothy, who is still a toddler (the boys go by Raph and Moth, so hereafter I’ll call them that), on an island off the coast of Scotland, where Giles’ family has had a home for generations. Giles studies puffins, and to augment their academic earnings, they’ve made a vacation cottage out of an old building on the island and are about to host the first guests.

I first read Sarah Moss last winter when I chose Names for the Sea for one of my book bingo squares (a book set in a place I’d like to visit – although after I read Moss’s memoir of a year in Iceland, I wasn’t so sure). Her nonfiction writing is witty and smart, and so is Night Waking. Anna is fed up with caring for small children and managing the house (or not really, as she is frequently out of kitchen essentials, inconvenient when you live on an island with no shops) and mourning the loss of her intellectual life. This passage sums it up: “When we got to the beach, after passing half the morning in negotiation about putting on shoes, Moth walked into the sea and then had a tantrum because it was wet, and Raph stood with his back to the waves talking about potential uses of hydroelectricity on oil rigs. I sat on a rough rock, my arms wrapped around Moth as he drummed his heels on my shins and tried to bite my arms, and remembered the staircase in the Bodleian Library . . . . I decided that if I made Moth walk the whole five hundred metres back to the house he might take less than forty-five minutes to go to sleep after lunch and, if I didn’t rush him at all, stopped to inspect every pebble and touch each flowering grass, it might almost be time to start putting together an early lunch when we arrived.” Sound familiar, mothers of young moms out there?

Anna and Giles quarrel a bit, in a half hearted way, over the children and the work to be done and the work they’re not getting done, and Anna looks into the history of the island to try to determine why an infant might be buried there. There’s a side story about the family who come to stay — Zoe, an anorexic teen, her cardiologist workaholic father and housewife mother whose controlling attitude has driven her daughter to illness and despair. I didn’t like that storyline (I’m tired of the old trope of the mother causing anorexia), but it did move some of the story about Anna and Giles along. And Moss humanizes the harping mother, just a bit.

What I loved about the story is the way Moss wove Anna’s historical research into childhood and parenting and the lives of women and children on the island into the novel. The mystery of the infant skeleton is interesting, too. Of course I also appreciated the honest look at parenting — Anna is a bit extreme, but most parents of small children go through her familiar swings from boredom and exhaustion to almost overwhelming love and tenderness for their offspring. All in all it was a good read, one that made me chuckle at times, and that transported me to a faraway place and other people’s lives while also recognizing bits of my own, which is always enjoyable.

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Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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