Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2022

A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist who lives in Kampala, Uganda, is the first selection of the Episcopal Church Climate Justice book club. If you have read this book or just want to join the discussion about it, you can register here — the discussion is this Tuesday 3/22/22 at 7:30 eastern time, online. The book is part memoir, part activism handbook, part guide to the climate emergency from the perspective of someone who will be most impacted because she is young and lives in the Global South. It’s well written, informative, and even uplifting. Despite the dire state of the climate emergency, the challenges of interrelated injustices around gender, race, and culture, and the lack of good governance worldwide that Nakate reveals, I feel confident that young people will do better than older generations have when it comes to helping usher in a more just, equitable, sustainable society.

Nakate is in her early twenties and has already founded an activist network called Rise Up and an initiative to bring solar power and clean cookstoves to schools in Uganda called Vash Green Schools. You may have heard of her as the woman who was cropped out of a photo of young climate activists (including Greta Thunberg) who had come to Davos, Switzerland to bring attention to the climate emergency outside of the World Economic Forum meeting. The AP claimed it was an aesthetic decision because she was in front of a building but she was the only Black person in the photo and also, the only one from Africa. Nakate spoke out immediately about having her entire continent removed from the conversation about climate activism by being cropped out.

She writes about the backlash she faced, not only from people around the world who thought she was making a big deal out of it, but also from fellow Africans who shared views such as as she shouldn’t draw so much attention to herself or that it was nothing out of the ordinary. Nakate is generous in explaining what her critics had to say, and thoughtful in her response. She makes the case for the intersectionality of the climate emergency’s impacts as well as solutions — painstakingly and clearly laying out the ways that injustices compound as well as how steps that can secure resiliency in the face of our changing climate can also secure a more just and equitable future.

In fact, Nakate’s book is so bracingly honest about what’s happening, how much the world has to overcome and how much wealthier countries have to face up to in terms of the impact of our actions on those who are least responsible for climate change but suffering the most from the consequences that it could have been a depressing read. Instead, I found it hopeful,because Nakate highlights how young activists are not waiting for self-serving corporate and political leaders but are taking action and supporting each other in their communities and globally. I learned a great deal about Africa and some of the climate related challenges different areas of the continent face. And I appreciated how the book ends with concrete suggestions for how to step up and get involved.

Nakate is an inspiring, smart, hard working, and gracious leader and I look forward to seeing her work continue to grow in the coming decades. As someone working to raise awareness, reduce my own consumption, and advocate for a better future, I found much to admire and to aspire to in her book. As a geek I appreciated her statistics, use of research, and helpful appendices. As a reader I enjoyed her well told stories and the warmth she expresses towards her family and friends who have supported her work.

I’m looking forward to the discussion tomorrow night.

Advertisement

Read Full Post »

I didn’t set out to read two novels in a week. I was planning to read Ann Patchett‘s The Patron Saint of Liars because the NH/VT chapter of the Companions was having its annual mystery and theology discussion and this was one of the book choices. Then Anthony Doerr‘s Cloud Cuckoo Land became available and I’d been on hold for it for over two months, so I didn’t want to pass up the chance to read it. So read them both, one after the other, rather quickly.

If you are a reader you’ve likely heard of both of these authors. Cloud Cuckoo Land was a finalist for the National Book Award last fall and was on a lot of the end of the year “best books” lists. Although it came out in September, I have heard more about it lately from other readers, especially our older son, who got it just before Christmas and had been telling me I’ve love it. His recommendation was the reason I had placed a virtual hold through the library.

Longtime readers of bookconscious may recall that I didn’t love All the Light We Cannot See. But I really enjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land. It’s the story of several characters dispersed by both geography and time whose lives are connected through an ancient Greek comedy called Cloud Cuckoo Land. That book is Doerr’s invention, but on his website he talks about the phrase, which is from a real Greek work. In his novel, Doerr tells the stories of:

— Anna, a girl in 1400s Constantinople and Omeir, a boy who is drafted with his oxen into the Ottoman military to sack the city.

— Zeno, a Korean War veteran who decides late in his life to try to translate the known fragments of Cloud Cuckoo Land.

— Seymour, a neurodivergent boy whose love for nature, and in particular an owl in the woods behind his grandfather’s derelict trailer catches the attention of his teacher and a librarian, and also causes him to be radicalized by ecoterrorists.

— and Konstance, a girl from a future time whose family are part of a small group chosen to populate a space ship headed for an earth-like planet where people will try to start over after earth becomes uninhabitable because of climate change.

There are some notable minor characters, in particular a librarian named Marian who makes the Lakeport Public Library a place of welcome and refuge for Zeno (who was also looked after by Lakeport’s librarians as a child) and for Seymour and all her patrons. Seymour’s mother, Konstance’s father, and Omeir’s grandfather also stand out.

The stories are all very compelling, and Doerr’s language can be beautiful. This sentence describes Zeno: “All day, joy has steadily inflated inside his chest, and now, this afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday in February, watching the children run ahead down the sidewalk— Alex Hess wearing his papier-mâché donkey head, Rachel Wilson carrying a plastic torch, Natalie Hernandez lugging a portable speaker—the feeling threatens to capsize him.” And this describes a daybreak Konstance sees: “In front of her, out on the horizon, the blue rim of dawn is turning pink, raising its fingers to push back the night.”

I think this sentence captures how the novel communicates a kind of “chastened hope” (a phrase Ellen Davis uses to describe the narrative arc of the bible in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture). In Doerr’s fictional worlds, horrible things happen, but individual people are often generous towards each other. He acknowledges the capacity for greed and even evil, but suggests that those will not prevail. Doerr addresses how the poor and people with disabilities — a cleft lip for Omeir, some kind of neurodivergence for Seymour — are treated by others in society. He also comments on our inability to understand that we’re harming the earth and on our inadequate response to climate change, some of which seems to be ceded in the novel to a large technology company that might be a fictional stand in for Google. People suffer because of all of this. But the innate kindness of most of his characters, even misguided Seymour who atones for his ecoterrorism later in life in some very interesting and benevolent ways, speaks to Doerr’s sense that our “interconnections” can help us.

Which is probably one of the themes of The Patron Saint of Liars. I didn’t like the book very much when I started it. Perhaps because I didn’t give myself time to properly think about Cloud Cuckoo Land and I wasn’t ready to jump into another novel yet. The Patron Saint of Liars is the story of Rose, a young pregnant woman who realizes she doesn’t love her husband and leaves, driving halfway across the country to St. Elizabeth’s, a home for unwed mothers in tiny Habit, Kentucky. There she meets Sister Evangeline, an elderly nun who cooks badly but has a gift for seeing into people’s souls. And June Clatterbuck, whose father found a miraculous spring in the family pasture which attracted people to this rural place, including a wealthy Catholic couple who built a hotel for visitors to the springs and then during the Depression donated the hotel to the church.

When one of the girls decides to hide her labor so she’ll have her twins at St. Elizabeth’s and get an hour in the ambulance before giving them up, Rose unwillingly goes along. The experience seems to move something in her and she wanders out into the snow to try to process what she’s been a part of that night and what will happen when her own baby is born. Son, St. Elizabeth’s caretaker, finds her in the snow and offers her a different future. From that pivotal evening, Rose finds her way onto a new path.

The book is also about Sissy, who grows up at St. Elizabeth’s, and Son, who came, like Rose, not intending to stay and ended up making a life there. Our discussion was very interesting — several women did not feel Rose was a sympathetic character nor that she experienced any growth or redemption. My sense is that she was dealing with deeply ingrained shame, the loss of her father, and a mother who did not really treat her as a daughter, but as a friend; I felt like she saw staying as a kind of penance, and that she loved her daughter and provided what she thought would best prepare her in life, having not felt at all prepared herself. The Patron Saint of Liars is an interesting story with a lot to discuss and a number of unresolved threads at the end. One person said she wished there would be a sequel.

In addressing any theology we saw in the book I wondered if three of the women might have represented a kind of feminine trinity after another participant pointed out that Sister Evangeline might represent Christ. I could see June as the Spirit and Mother Corinne as a kind of Old Testament version of God. But what I didn’t say in the discussion is that the theology of The Patron Saint of Liars is that we’re all interconnected and we have to care for one another. (You thought I’d forgotten that — the way this book and Cloud Cuckoo Land are similar? Nope, I was getting to it.)

I think Patchett is telling us, as Sissy and Sister Evangeline understand, and I think Rose ultimately did as well, that we are all signs from God for each other. Rose very much prays for a sign at the start of the novel, and at the end, Lorraine, a girl who has come to St. Elizabeth’s to have her baby, is praying to Saint Theresa for a sign. But Patchett’s story shows that even Rose, whose connections to others don’t look like what we expect from a wife/daughter/mother/friend, cannot avoid the fact that her life is deeply connected with others’ and that if we stop looking heavenward and start looking at those whose lives we touch and who touch ours, we may see the signs we seek.

Perhaps because of this, I ended up liking The Patron Saint of Liars more than I thought I would. The language is relatively plain, but still quite evocative. Take this passage, for example, where Sissy is describing Rose:

“My mother talked in her car.

If there is any explanation for this in all of science, I can’t imagine what it would have been. She didn’t talk in my father’s truck or the nuns’ station wagon. She didn’t talk on buses. But in that blue Dodge Dart that was hers alone in all the world she sat comfortably. She folded her legs beneath her. She even put her foot up on the dashboard for a minute. She smiled and stretched and said whatever came into her head. It was almost like the car was her house, only she was never like this in her house.”

If you’re looking for a good read with a lot to discuss, either one of these novels would be a good choice.

Read Full Post »

I realized when I was writing about The Quiet Boy that I had not read Underground Airlines. I really like Ben Winters‘ writing and if you’re a longtime reader of bookconscious you know I’ve read many of his books. So I looked in my library eBook platforms and checked it out. I loved it and will buy it so the Computer Scientist can read it too. I am guessing that life was hectic when Underground Airlines first came out; I remember seeing it and meaning to read it. Anyway, I’m really glad I read it now!

As with several of Winters’ other books, this novel is partly a mystery, partly speculative fiction, and deeply humane. I’ve said before that readers can learn a thing or two about being human from his books; that is the case with Underground Airlines as well. It’s set in a world where Lincoln was assassinated before becoming president, and Congress subsequently passed a series of compromises and a Constitutional amendment allowing slavery to remain legal and regulated in the South. By the time the novel takes place, only four slave states remain. The main character, who goes by the name Victor, is an escaped slave who works for the U.S. Marshall service, tracking others who have escaped.

When the book opens Victor is in Indianapolis, working a case. He meets a young mother, Martha, and her child at the hotel where he is staying. As he draws closer to finding the person he’s tracking, he finds himself helping Martha, and also revisiting memories he’d rather forget. Just when he thinks he’s solved his case, things fall apart, and now it’s Martha’s turn to help him. Winters uses their friendship to shine a light on the racism pervasive even in the abolitionist north. He seamlessly comments on inequity, “nice white people,” corporate greed, political dysfunction, and violence, but it’s not heavy handed. All of this fits into the story.

Which is compelling — I was nearly late for work one morning because I thought I could just finish a chapter I’d stayed up too late reading and when I looked up, I had ten minutes to feed the cats, get dressed, make coffee, grab a piece of toast, and fly out the door. Winters’ characters are complex people; there is no simple good guys/bad guys divide, and even the ones you root for do some things you wish they wouldn’t and vice versa. Winters gets that people are imperfect and sometimes act in surprising ways. Reading his books, I always get the sense that he is hopeful about humanity.

Underground Airlines is a terrific read, and it would be a great book club pick. There is a lot to unpack. I also think this would make a terrific movie or TV series. When I described it to the Computer Scientist he said it sounded like it has a similar vibe to Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In High Castle. I don’t know as I haven’t read that book or seen the show, but I did read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I get how the two writers could be compared.

Also, Underground Airlines ends with Victor trying to track down Martha’s partner, Samson. I would love to read that story! The final lines of the book left me wondering about a sequel. Earlier in the story, more than once, Victor or his handler express that “everything happens,” alluding to the fact that slave or free, black Americans are always in danger. At the end of the book, Victor has flipped that narrative and is hopeful about the chances of finding and freeing Samson: “Everything can happen. Everything is possible.” Could there be more in store for Victor and Martha?

Read Full Post »