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Archive for October, 2020

A friend recommended Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer, the author well known for Rumpole of the Bailey. It’s not available to download from my library but my mother gave me a copy for my birthday. My grandmother used to say that when the news was awful, a mystery was just the thing (and this week, the New York Times affirmed her wisdom by running a piece on Agatha Christie’s books at time when we are certainly up to our ears in bad news). So I pulled Summer’s Lease out of the to read pile and devoured it in a couple of sittings.

Apparently, Mortimer knew the setting of this novel well, having regularly rented houses in an area of Tuscany he facetiously called Chiantishire, because of the presence of so many English tourists and ex-pats. Summer’s Lease is a mystery but it is also quite sharply humorous. The story is about Molly Pargeter, who uses her inheritance from a great aunt to book three weeks in an Italian villa for her family of five, and then unexpectedly ends up hosting her father, Haverford, as well.

Mortimer captures all the little nuances of family life — the power imbalance in Molly’s marriage to Hugh, a divorce lawyer (like Mortimer) who has been having flirtatious lunches with one of his former clients; the triangulation that occurs as children enter adolescence and at once need their mother and want to bring her down a notch; the vulnerability and insecurity behind old Haverford’s raucous and, even in a time when “PC” was not a thing yet, often inappropriate rancountering. For all this human interest, Mortimer also delivers an interesting mystery and does so with great humor, poking fun at both British and Italian society.

As I was telling the friend who recommended it, the ending took me aback, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. But It was a good read, entertaining and a delightful if brief escape from the news. And I’m intrigued by Mortimer, who seems like he was quite a character. I have never seen Rumpole, and may look for some episodes. And Summer’s Lease was also a four part series which aired on Masterpiece in the early 90s, with John Gielgud as Haverford, which sounds wonderful.

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I read All About Love by bell hooks last February, just before the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent. I don’t think I shared before that my introduction to the bell hooks, prior to reading that book, was an essay recommended by the same student who suggested I purchase Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching for the library where I worked, a student who organized a book club for other young men, who told me he was a big fan of hooks’ writing. As I look back, his recommendation was my real introduction to antiracism (as opposed to simply non-racism), although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I am grateful to that young man and hope he is doing well now.

I digress. Back in the spring, I bought Belonging, also by bell hooks, because I had enjoyed All About Love and also Wendell Berry‘s This Day: New & Collected Sabbath Poems which I read parts of along with an accompanying Lent devotional booklet from Salt project, and Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis, which connects agrarian themes in the Hebrew scriptures with the writing of Berry and other contemporary agrarians. I knew that in Belonging, hooks talks about how much she admired Wendell Berry’s work, not only on racism (The Hidden Wound) but also on agrarianism; in fact one chapter is an interview hooks conducted with Berry. I was looking for something that was meaningful and also affirming of humankind’s potential and so Belonging floated up to the top of my to read pile.

Because that’s the thing about hooks: despite a tough childhood and growing up in white supremacist segregated Kentucky, hooks write a fair bit about joy, integrity, creativity, self-reliance. Don’t get me wrong, she writes very clearly and searingly about “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and does not sugar coat a thing. But she also writes about what freedom, safety and belonging she felt in the hills of her girlhood, the self-reliance and self-expression her grandparents felt in growing food and making beautiful quilts (like these), and the joy to be found in community. Growing up she learned, “Creating joy in the midst of adversity was an essential survival strategy.”

The essays in Belonging focus on community, but hooks has an expansive view of that word, to include environmental justice as well as racial justice. She talks about the sense of loss she felt leaving Kentucky, even though it had been a painful place for her, and the years she spent trying to find and nurture community in cities where she thought she did belong. But for hooks, belonging is as much connected to the human need to be in right relation with the earth as it is to the same need to be in right relation with each other. Her sense of Kentucky as “homeplace” has as much to do with the land as the people, and she writes movingly about the destruction wrought by hilltop removal and her own work to preserve land.

Having just finished Me and White Supremacy, which I was working through as I was reading Belonging, and I found myself feeling hooks was speaking directly to me when she addressed the fact that even though individual white may be anti-racist, as a group, progressive whites are as racist as any others in her experience, especially when it comes to self-segregating in white neighborhoods. I can think of only 3 homes in my neighborhood where either nonwhites or immigrants live. In fact, all my life, I’ve never lived in a truly diverse neighborhood.

In reminding us that racist habits are so deeply ingrained in American culture, hooks addresses all readers. She writes about the psychological impact of racism, systemic dominator culture and white supremacism and how that prevents both Blacks and whites from trusting and moving forward towards community. White people, she notes, are the ones who have to “work at unlearning and challenging the patterns of racist thought and behavior that are still the norm in our society” — so that it is safe for Blacks to do so as as well. And yet, she is hopeful:

“Yet most people still long for community and that yearning is the place of possibility, the place where we might begin as a nation to think and dream anew about the building of beloved community.”

Speaking to how this can come about, hooks says:

“Those of us who truly believe racism can end, that white supremacist thought and action can be challenged and changed, understand that there is an element of risk as we work to build community across difference. The effort to build community in a social context of racial inequality (much of which is class based) requires an ethic of relational reciprocity, one that is anti-domination. With reciprocity all things do not need to be equal in order for acceptance and mutuality to thrive. If equality is evoked as the only standard by which it is deemed acceptable for people to meet across boundaries and create community, then there is little hope. Fortunately, mutuality is a more constructive and positive foundation for the building of ties that allow for differences in status, position, power, and privilege whether determined by race, class, sexuality, religion, or nationality.”

How to achieve mutuality? Service. Again I can’t possibly say it better, so I will quote hooks:

“Dominator culture devalues the importance of service. Those of us who work to undo negative hierarchies of power understand the humanizing nature of service, understand that in caregiving and caretaking we make ourselves vulnerable. And in that place of vulnerability there is the possibility of recognition, respect, and mutual partnership.”

In the final chapters of Belonging she writes about how that taking care — of friends, of family, of herself, and of the land — has helped her come home. In Belonging readers can both learn and understand the forcers we are up against in contemporary America and how to overcome them. It’s not easy, but hooks shows us the way.

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I’ve been participating in a Me and White Supremacy circle over the last month. If you’re not familiar with this book, it started as an Instagram challenge by Layla F. Saad, and then became a downloadable workbook, and now is a book. My circle was made up primarily of people from an Episcopal church in the southwest part of New Hampshire; they had invited anyone in the diocese to join them and I turned out to be the only person outside their church to join in.

This book, like the work it asks readers to do, is hard. I appreciated the support of a group. We followed The Circle Way as Saad asks in the appendix of her book, which is a non hierarchical way to share responsibility in a group that keeps “the purpose at the center” of the circle. We managed to do this even though our circle was on Zoom.

Me and White Supremacy is structured in 28 chapters representing 28 days of reading a short, clear analysis of a concept related to white supremacy and then responding to “reflective journaling prompts” about the day’s topic. That first part is pretty easy; the second part requires thinking, remembering, understanding, reflecting, and writing down how you personally have participated in or upheld the topic of the day. Things like “color blindness,” “white centering,” optical allyship,” “white saviorism,” or “tone policing.”

As a quick aside, if you aren’t sure what white supremacy is, or you think of men in white hoods or protestors when you hear it, that is not what Saad is talking about. White supremacy in antiracism work is the social systems and structures that uphold white dominant culture, but Saad asks readers to look at the feelings, attitudes, habits of thought, and experiences that individuals have and use, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain white white supremacy. So as I reflected on the prompts, the idea was to examine how I, as a privileged white woman, help make it possible for systemic racism to exist.

I am definitely still processing. Even though I spent a fair bit of time on the topic of antiracism this summer at work I learned a great deal from this process and know I will keep on learning. The final task in the book is to make a commitment. As Saad writes,

“Antiracism is not about perfectionism. It is about the intention to help create change met with the consistent commitment to keep learning, keep showing up, and keep doing what is necessary so that BIPOC can live with dignity and equality.”

I set three tasks for the next two weeks, as one of the final prompts asked. One is to press for antiracism to be at the center of the work of a committee I am on, even if it feels like I’m being pushy or is otherwise uncomfortable. The second is to try to follow up on a conversation that I let slide with someone who is white about Black Lives Matter. The third is to learn about Black-led advocacy groups in my area, listen (via emails and websites in COVID times) and understand where and I how I could and should lend support.

Next I need to work on a commitment statement. Saad reminds readers that this is to “help focus you so you know what work you are supposed to be doing.” In other words, so that what was learned in the last 28 days becomes more than words in a journal. I listened to a webinar this evening from The Adaway Group, and one point the speakers’ emphasized is that having values is a start but they don’t matter if there are no actions to carry them out. So this last step is really about defining some actions that can help a person really work on dismantling white supremacy. As Saad recommends, I am taking my time this week, so that I can write something meaningful and hold myself to it (with the Computer Scientist to help me be accountable).

There are many excellent books, articles, blogs, podcasts, etc. about race and antiracism. But as Nicole Cooke and Tre Johnson both explain, reading is just a start. If you’ve been reading and you feel called to more, Me and White Supremacy is a process that you can begin in order to start acting. Or if like me, you already thought you were acting, it will help you see how to do this work more effectively, with humility and greater (but not perfect!) understanding. I suspect I will end up going back through the prompts again another time, as the two folks who issued the invitation to our circle have done.

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I discussed Braiding Sweetgrass with a group of science librarians over the summer, and that group chose Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller as our next read. We only have to have the first half of it read by next week but I sat down with it over the weekend and didn’t want to put it down. By Sunday night I’d read the whole thing.

Miller starts out by telling readers that she began to learn about David Starr Jordan, famed taxonomist, especially of fish species, and first president of Stanford, in earnest (and in great detail — Miller was a history major and she knows how to really dig into research) when she was at a low point in her life. She wanted to know “what becomes of you when you refuse to surrender to Chaos.” She had heard about Jordan early in her science reporting career, and felt it was remarkable that when hundreds of one-of-a-kind fish specimens were broken and jumbled in the 1906 earthquake, representing years of work lost in a few minutes, he was not overcome, but dug back into his work.

While the book jacket and publicity make this sound like a science history book with a dash of memoir, it seems to me to be the opposite. Why Fish Don’t Exist is the story of a young woman trying to understand her family, her life, and her future. She’s seeking something to believe in that can make what her scientist father told her as a child less depressing: you don’t matter (and neither does anyone) in the grand scheme of things. This wasn’t meant to put her down, by the way, he just believes it, scientifically.

As Miller goes deeper into Jordan’s story, she begins to realize this man who she looked to for hope, this historical figure who managed to rise from humble origins, and get back up again and go on after many setbacks and personal tragedies, was deeply flawed. He acted unethically and selfishly, ignored or marginalised the indigenous and immigrant people who helped him collect specimens, and it’s even quite likely he murdered Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders. He was also one of the most outspoken and prominent proponents of eugenics in America.

Miller, still struggling with her own “chaos” — depression that dogged her and her eldest sister, tension in her household growing up, a broken relationship she hoped to patch up for several years — laments, “That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live.” The one her father taught her about. Where there is no “cosmic justice.” Unless there is . . . .

Because just when it seems she’s run the story to its end, Miller learns “that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.” I can’t ruin the story by telling you why not — you really have to read the book. But it’s fascinating, and now I think it’s amazing that the category fish persisted for so long, and I followed my husband and grown daughter around the house telling them about it in minute detail yesterday.

What I appreciate is that Miller neither dwells too long in her own chaos nor in Jordan’s; she is thorough without being heavy handed. I learned not only that fish don’t exist, but also a whole lot about the eugenics movement (and I wondered why I’d never learned about such an important and horrible aspect of American history in any depth before). And about “story editing” — the answer Miller found when she wondered whether deluding oneself is ever a good idea. And resilience, which Miller and several other people she writes about appear to have admirable amounts of.

A fascinating read, which you will want to share (whether your current housemates want you to or not). It could have been depressing, since after all this is partly the story of patriarchal hubris. But Miller makes it hopeful and lovely and so interesting.

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Summer is the final book in Ali Smith‘s seasons quartet. I have enjoyed each one (here are my posts on Autumn, Winter, and Spring). Now that I’ve read the whole series (and, I admit, looked at some other reviews) I’m aware that Smith mentions a different Shakespeare play, a different Dickens novel, and a different woman artist in each book. Summer opens with a sort of prelude about a film by Lorenza Mazzetti about “a man carrying two suitcases” “balanced on a very narrow brick ledge which runs round the edge of a high building.”

Just before Smith tells us about this film, she describes how “millions and millions” of people protested “lying, and the mistreatments of people and the planet” but “the people who knew the power of saying so? said, on the radio on TV, on social media, tweet after tweet, page after page: so?” We who are alive in this moment in time are the man, balanced on the precipice, carrying the baggage of partisanship and selfishness.

This sets us up to meet Grace, mother of two teens, Sacha and Robert, who link the people in this novel together. Grace is a Gen X mom, painfully self absorbed, and a leaver (in terms of Brexit). Sacha and Robert are slightly stereotypical as a teen worried about climate change and a younger bullied teen who kind of admires fascism, but really loves Einstein.

Sacha can’t understand why Charlotte (Arthur’s fellow blogger and missing girlfriend in Winter) is taking the siblings to see where Einstein stayed in rural England before emigrating to America. She warns Charlotte that Robert really likes her. Charlotte replies:

“If people think you like them . . . it can go either way. There’s a lot of powerplay in liking and being liked. Such powerful connection. It’s a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always a choice we’ve got.”

Throughout the seasons novels, Smith shows us characters who are making the world bigger or smaller for others. Sacha writes to a refugee she calls Hero. Robert reveals his admiration for Einstein to Charlotte. That was one of my favorite chapters, when Charlotte and Arthur stumble onto helping Sacha and meet her family. Charlotte’s chapter, where she is stuck in a huge old house with Iris, Arthur’s aunt, while Arthur goes to be with Elizabeth from Autumn, is also excellent.

Iris, ever practical, plans to have a bigger septic tank put in so she can take in refugees let loose from detention camps because of COVID (including Hero). And leaves soup outside Charlotte’s door when she is unable to deal with the world and Arthur’s betrayal all at once. I also loved hearing more from Daniel, the old man from Autumn, and learning about his sister’s work with the Resistance during WWII. Smith captures perfectly the pain, anxiety, and fear of our times, and of humanity generally.

This book, and the whole series, is about Brexit, and COVID, and fascism, and art, but also most of all, about humanity. Charlotte notes, “What art does is exist . . . . And then because we encounter it, we remember we exist too. And that one day we won’t.” Smith’s series does that — reminds us we exist in this dysfunctional world, that we’re connected to each other, as her characters are.

What Smith does is manage to write about the worst of human nature, all the ways we harm each other and the planet, all the ways power is corrupted, all the ways we twist love to suit our purposes, take nature for granted, and yet still somehow manage to get through, to carry each other, resist, and overcome. Charlotte, Iris, and Sacha, Daniel and Elizabeth, even bumbling Grace and damaged Robert and fickle Arthur, we’re all in this together. Somehow, as we stumble towards grace (the state, not the character), leaving our imprint on the world in the form of literature, music, and art. We come closer to what’s possible.

I thoroughly enjoyed these books and imagine I’ll re-read them in years to come.

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Another month of COVID, another Barbara Pym novel. I’m working my way through as much of her work as is easily accessible in library eBook platforms. Less Than Angels is another book with a spinster protagonist, Catherine Oliphant (did Gail Honeyman know this book when she chose to name her heroine Eleanor Oliphant? I don’t know), now one of my favorites of Pym’s many woman protagonists. And Less Than Angels is set partly in academia (where I work) as it is concerned with a group of anthropology students, from the nineteen year old Deirdre to Tom Mallow, minor gentry turned anthropologist, and Alaric Lydgate, whose years of field notes languish in his attic while he cranks out acerbic reviews of others’ work. Pym being Pym, she still pokes a little fun at the Anglican church but the main target of her gentle humor in this book is the world of seminars, grants, notes and theses.

It’s a remarkably melancholy book. Maybe because Deirdre’s inexperienced and heartfelt emotion are painfully reminiscent of my late teens. Catherine is also a more nuanced character than the sisters in Some Tame Gazelle or even Wilmet in A Glass of Blessings. She writes “women’s” stories and articles for magazines, has no living relatives, and manages to befriend her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. You get the sense there is much more to Catherine than “how to give an ‘inexpensive’ cocktail party,” which she is writing towards the end of the book.

She manages to befriend everyone from Deirdre’s aunt and mother to the young anthropology students Mark and Digby who visit her at both the start and the end of the book, to the eccentric Lydgate.Catherine is such sympathetic character, the kind of person that others lean on in good times and bad, that when she slips into a church and lights a candle for the absent Tom, off to study an African tribe, a priest mistakes her for one of the regular volunteers. She’s forever caring for people, but she’s no pushover; Pym makes it clear that she is taking care of herself as well.

I’ve discussed before that Pym is offering me some respite these days. I am appreciating what an astute observer she is, as in this observation about Dierdre, who is taken aback by Catherine’s frank assessment of Tom’s struggle to finish his thesis, “She was as yet too young and inexperienced to be quite sure that one can love and criticize at the same time.” And even though her characters are of a certain time and place* and social structure, we can still recognize their ambition, feelings, frustrations and limitations. It comforting in a way, even though nothing is really comforting right now.

*I should add that there is a very colonialist attitude towards anthropology in this book; studies are done to benefit British administrators even as the anthropologists may be interested in obscure languages or cultural practices.

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