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Archive for March, 2019

The Computer Scientist will be happy I’ve finished this book because I could not stop reading it each night, so my book light probably kept him up. And then I could not get to sleep, imagining what was happening to the people Matthew Desmond wrote about. So I tossed and turned.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is not a book of journalism, as it might seem at first. Demond is a sociologist, and he studied poverty and eviction as part of his graduate work. Although he’s a good writer, he’s first a scholar. A very detailed chapter at the end of the book explains his methodology, which was to live with his subjects, and helps readers understand ethnography.

The book is an honest look at yet another entirely broken system in American society. Just as Ghost of the Innocent Man revealed how the justice system is stacked against poor defendants and favors jury decisions, privileging them over errors in evidence gathering that can condemn innocent people to decades in jail, Evicted explains how the entire system of poverty housing — landlords who are free to leave property in disrepair and charge poor people 70-80% of their income for substandard housing, police who prefer and even encourage landlords to evict nuisance tenants who call the police too much (including battered women), lawmakers who decided long ago that families with children are not a protected class, leaving a loophole for building owners to refuse to rent to moms and kids — is stacked against the poor.

It leaves its mark for generations, as children who grow up in families relegated to poverty housing and shelters are undernourished, under educated (one boy in the book changed schools something like five times in a school year), under resourced as their parents often lose jobs as a result of having unstable housing, and often without their relatives. It breaks apart neighborhoods where transience bears indifference and impermanence.

This book will haunt you. I have honestly not been able to think of anything else for days. On Friday I actually imagined what it would be like to dump roaches in a slumlord’s clean kitchen, clog their toilets, and cut off their heat so they could taste what it’s like for their tenants. I think I’m going to be angry for some time to come. Desmond sums up the core of the issue this way: “Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

And yet, Desmond states simply, “All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary. Because it is unnecessary, there is hope.” That’s optimistic, if somewhat unrealistic. He suggests a few major policy shifts that could end poverty housing and create a level playing field for poor renters, such as fully funding indigent legal representation (something I heard an ACLU attorney cite as the best thing we could do to end wrongful incarceration as well), and universal housing vouchers, such as some European countries have. What’s been keeping me up and what will continue to haunt me is that I feel those solutions are completely out of reach in the current polarized political climate, where demonizing any kind of “other” is the favored tool of elected officials trying to manipulate the public with fear.

I read this book quickly, on the theory that it was like ripping a bandaid; I wanted to get the pain over with. Maybe someday I’ll try reading it more slowly. I am hoping the people in this book caught a break somewhere along the line — Desmond tells us about a couple of them, who, once housed, were able to turn their energies to their families, their educations, and their lives. I pray that people who enrich themselves on other people’s despair will come to understand what they’re doing and stop. And I wish lawmakers would read this book.

Recommended but only if you’re prepared to find yourself wishing to conduct some sort of Robin Hood terrorism on slum landlords.

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I’ve had a number of people tell me that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick is the basis for Blade Runner. Which is fine but I haven’t seen that movie. Instead, I was reminded of Ray Bradbury and Ursula LeGuin — contemporaries of Philip K. Dick who were also preoccupied with what havoc mankind could inflict upon itself with technology and more importantly, inhumanity. The Computer Scientist is a big fan of Dick’s writing, and when I told him I really enjoyed this book he said The Man In High Castle is even better.

The main character in this book, Rick Deckhard, is a bounty hunter whose job is to kill “andys” or androids, which have managed to escape and live among people left on Earth, an undesirable post-war place where “dust” (possibly nuclear fallout) has forced people into the least contaminated areas, leaving huge swathes of America decimated. Wild animals are gone. People save for pets — Deckhard goes into debt to buy a real live goat — which they keep on their rooftops. Those who can’t afford live animals get electric ones. People who have lower mental capabilities (which the dust seems to hasten) are called chickenheads. Unsurprisingly, they’re looked down on.

People use something called an “empathy box” to “fuse” with a mysterious, God-like man called Mercer, who seems to be moving up a steep hill on a sisyphean hike as people throw rocks at him. They use “mood organs” to dial their day’s emotional outlook. But they still have the same concerns we do. Deckhard feels torn about his work, wanting to keep the world safe but not cause further harm. He wishes his wife wasn’t depressed. He covets his neighbor’s real animal and is willing to go into debt to get what he wants. He’s prone to comparing himself to others. Mainly he just wants his latest assignment, to kill several andys that are at large after gravely injuring his coworker, to be over so he can get some rest.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a page-turner, but packed with things to discuss. I read it as a possible choice for a community-wide read and I could see it being a good choice for that, with many possible angles for programs. I’m definitely interested in reading more of Philip K. Dick’s work.

 

 

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Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin is this year’s Concord Reads (our community-wide read program) title. And it’s the reason I have bags under my eyes, because for the past two nights I have been compelled to keep reading long past the point where I should have put the book down, and then laid awake thinking about Willie Grimes, the innocent man of the title, and Chris Mumma, co-founder of the North Carolina Center On Actual Innocence, and a force for justice. Even though I’ve read other books about injustice (Just MercyThe New Jim Crow, Walking the Dog, The Other Wes Moorethis was still very wrenching.

Imagine your life taken from you by a wrongful conviction. Now imagine being moved constantly from prison to prison, and misunderstood by almost every single person you meet, judged and misdiagnosed by nurses and doctors and psychiatrists. Kept from your own siblings funerals. And imagine that even through all of this, you keep hoping that evidence is out there to free you, and you just have to remain true — never giving in to pressure, endless, insufferable pressure, to say you did the crime you didn’t do. The sheer number of times that Willie Grimes was either asked to confess or had a clueless member of the corrections world write a note in his record about his unwillingness to take responsibility — it’s mind boggling. It would make most people lose their minds, or their humanity, or both. Willie Grimes not only didn’t do either, he grew in his faith, he steadfastly continued to advocate for himself as best as he could, and when he was finally exonerated, he mowed other people’s lawns just to be helpful. In my view, he is truly saintly.

There are many other heroes in this book — Chris Mumma, for one, without whom Willie Grimes and many others would not be free. And she too faced obstacles that would defeat most people. Political wrangling. Egos among the people she assembles to form a commission in North Carolina to draft a process for considering post-conviction innocence claims. A mountain of said claims, and evidence that these were only a fraction of the cases out there. Barebones staff, no real power, very little budget. None of this stops her, and she is the definition of righteous. Although they don’t appear until nearly the end of the book, the crime victim’s granddaughters also seem like amazing people to me. They accepted that the man they had understood to be their grandmother’s attacker was innocent and spoke out about how grateful they felt for the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission’s work.

The people who should be ashamed of themselves is a longer list. They don’t merit any further attention.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Benjamin Rachlin is also a kind of hero for bringing this issue to a nationwide audience, and a very talented writer. This is an excellent book. One thing I admire tremendously as a librarian who teaches information literacy is the way Rachlin clarifies, in an author’s note before the book even begins, how and where he got his information and how readers can tell what are quotes from source materials and what are recollections of the people he spoke with. That kind of clarity is unfortunately not as common as it should be in creative nonfiction. Rachlin also excels at storytelling. I seriously couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew I’d be tired today.

Read this book. Tell someone else about it. Discuss it with people. Be prepared to cry, and to grind your teeth, and to mutter to yourself.

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My coworker recommended Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard and I also read some compelling reviews when I ordered it for the library, so I checked it out. I admit that I thought it was going to be painful to read, like Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (which I loved). But while Emily Bernard does not shy away from painful things, and knows pain well — the opening of Black Is the Body is about the longterm scarring and pain she lives with from being stabbed — but this book is not painful to read.

It is, however, thought provoking, and beautiful, and wise, and Bernard is smart and witty and I could go on reading her writing for days. I identify with her love of reading, her admiration for Vermont, her love for her family, her experience of living somewhere that is home but isn’t. Obviously my experience is only tangentially like hers, but still, I feel  I’d like to talk with her about the ways our experiences are alike and not alike, and that is the feeling I want to have when I am done reading a book of personal essays.

I admire the way she doesn’t just write about good things but describes awkward or difficult or unpleasant ones as well. And the way she doesn’t just love Burlington and Vermont without acknowledging their faults. And the way she takes a hard look at many things that as a society we like to feel good about. Like this:

“Dr. King’s noble dream has degenerated into a cliche, a catchphrase, like ‘diversity,’ a way out of — as opposed to a way into — complex and textured conversations about race. At best, what the civil rights movement appears to have produced is a generation that is keen to look beyond race, but finds on the other side not freedom but a riddle.”

She writes so beautifully about her marriage, as in this passage about going to the airport after her mother died: “We held hands and drove in silence, both of us staring at the road ahead. This is marriage, I thought, or at least my marriage. It is not the stories of forbidden desire that thrilled me as a girl, or even magical rides through clouds and on dark waters. It is John’s right hand in mine, and his left one sure and steady on the wheel.”

And about her and her husband’s decision to adopt her daughters: “Adopting my daughters is the most self-centered thing I have ever done. It is the one decision I have made in my life that represents who I truly am, the only choice that aligns most squarely with my deepest and most fundamental belief about life on Earth: that we are here to see one another through this journey.”

Emily Bernard is a terrific writer, and this is a good read. Reading her essays, you can tell she is a scholar, but her writing is not only smart and deeply informed by her work, but also richly humane. Like I said, you’ll wish you could meet her and talk with her, or take a class from her, or both.

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I’ve been intending to read more of Karen Armstrong for years. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I read and re-read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life a few years ago. We have acquired a few of her other books over the years, but recently I turned to a Kindle version of St Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I’m a member of what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (yes, the guy who preached at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) calls “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement,” and as part of his work, Bishop Curry has challenged people to follow The Way of Love. One of the recent challenges related to this was to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the season of Epiphany (which runs from the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, to the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, which this year, is on March 5).

Romans is tough going. Although I have a serious church history and scripture nerd in my house (yes, the Computer Scientist is a man of many talents), and my own personal seminarian to call on (the former Teen the Elder) I found myself looking for more context for this repetitive, rambling letter than seems to contradict itself, and at times, to contradict the entire notion of loving your neighbor as yourself. At a discussion group about Romans at church I got a taste of what Karen Armstrong talks about in her book, and also several people recommended it.

Now, I was raised Catholic and except for a few years in my late teens and early twenties, I’ve attended church pretty regularly my whole life. But I learned all kinds of things I never knew from this book. For example, Pauls’s second letter to the Corinthians is actually five letters, out of chronological order, and with a couple of passages he probably didn’t write stuck in (including the infamous cover your heads, ladies, and the women should be seen but not heard in church). Paul was the earliest writer in the Jesus movement, and he wrote his letters and did his work before there were any written gospels. He only took on a trade (probably tent making or leather working) when he hit the road, as a way to connect with people and to make money for his travels. He believed the “Parousia” or coming of Christ was imminent, and he never meant his writing to be read later, much less a couple thousand years after he wrote. In fact, much of his advice to the communities he wrote to was very specific to their issues and concerns, and wasn’t meant to be taken as general advice for Christians (who didn’t exist yet, anyway).

I knew bits of this, but hadn’t ever read it all in one place before, nor had such an erudite but accessible guide to Paul as Karen Armstrong. She admits that as a young writer, she was prepared to dislike him (her first book was also about Paul) but she came to admire him as she researched. Other things in the book were a complete surprise to me — she writes that the American scholar John Dominic Crossan surmises that the disciples left Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and probably didn’t know what happened to him in the immediate aftermath, and reminds us that the passion accounts are “prophecy historicized” rather than actual history. The stories are so familiar to believers, and even to nonbelievers as a result of Western culture (even network TV showed Jesus Christ Superstar last Easter), that Crossan says “It is hard for us, I repeat, to bring our imagination down low enough to see the casual brutality with which he was probably taken and executed.” Armstrong notes that Paul, too, was probably killed brutally and without fanfare, as was the Roman empire’s specialty.

She reminds us that only seven of Paul’s letters were likely to have been written by him. And that his words, and his legacy, were mediated by various figures, from the author of Luke and Acts through Augustine and Martin Luther and various church figures over centuries. This I knew — and it is criticism that has been leveled at Armstrong herself. Mediation, of course, is impossible to avoid in human communication; we all make meaning out of what we take in, and are influenced by others’ frames and agendas. I’ll leave arguments about where Armstrong falls in the continuum of New Testament scholarship to others, but for me, this book was helpful. It reminded me that much of what we know about the first century Jesus Movement is uncertain, even that which we accept as gospel.

But this book also reminded me that the people who carried Jesus’ story to others then, and those who do now, are participants in a faith tradition that doesn’t need absolute historical facts and details. Exactly what Jesus did when and where and with whom isn’t really important, nor is what Paul said about it, nor how Martin Luther or others interpreted or misinterpreted what Paul said. What is important is that the transformative message of this strange, mysterious life, the life of a man at once a Galilean peasant and the Son of God, has endured down the ages in part because an imperfect man named Paul was called to make it his life’s work to tell people about it. Armstrong helps clarify that, and I recommend this book to anyone struggling to understand Paul a little bit more.

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I picked up My Life in France at last year’s Five Colleges Booksale, but it was something I’d been meaning to read for some time. Although it was written with and finished by her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, this is Julia Child‘s memoir of her years in France, from 1948 when she and her husband Paul first went to live in Paris, to 1992, when she gave up her small home in Provence after Paul could no longer travel. It’s a delightful book. How could any book about delicious food in a beautiful place, shared with interesting people, not be a delight?

But there’s much more to this book. Child was an amazing person who put her all into her life’s work — teaching people how to cook well. Until I read her memoir I had no idea how long it took her to research and test her recipes and how scientifically she worked to ensure consistent results for anyone cooking from them, and how carefully she explained why the recipes work. Her incredible work ethic, her astute observations of culture and society, her fond remembrance of people she knew well, from market sellers to her dear husband, make this book a really good read as well as a delightful one.

Paul and Julia Child were both very talented and were really a creative team, and the amount of work they did separately and together is quite impressive. Although this book only touches briefly on their time in the OSS during WWII, it does explore the bureaucratic mess of the postwar diplomatic service and the way McCarthy and his paranoia stretched across the ocean to impact longtime government servants abroad. Her observations are really interesting, and I admire Child’s lifelong efforts to learn and become better spoken about politics and culture as well as her own passions (food, restaurants, wine, cooking, and food production). As a lifelong learner myself, and as someone who didn’t begin to really form my own views until late in my 20s, I could identify with her sense that she hadn’t grown up in college, and she had not thought through her positions on important matters until she was well into adulthood.

I also think Americans who grew up knowing her PBS show don’t realize how much her initial “cookery bookery” as she refers to it was a partnership with not only her cookbook collaborators in France, but with the many French people who contributed to her culinary education — chefs, restauranteurs, shopkeepers, market sellers, teachers, friends, all of whom expanded her repertoire, her tastes, her knowledge and skill. Child’s ethos was her own, however: “nothing is too much trouble if it comes out the way it should,” and “the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite.” Towards the end of My Life in France she sums up her advice to people: “Learn how to cook — try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun!”

And that sense of practicality, fearlessness, and fun permeates this book.

 

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