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On the way back from the Association of College and Research Libraries 2019 conference where I heard Viet Thanh Nguyen speak, I downloaded The Refugees from my library to read on the plane. I read The Sympathizer  a couple of weeks ago and found the brutality hard to read but the humanity of the story too important to important to put down. That, it turns out, is more or less what Nguyen said in his talk at ACRL. That the real story of America is much more complicated than the one we tell and that without the “narrative plentitude” that exposes both the beauty and brutality of America, we are perpetuating the power structures that sustain inequity.

So I was not sure how much brutality to expect when I read The Refugees, but I opened it with my eyes and heart open to whatever Nguyen had to bring, because I’m thoroughly convinced that he’s right, we have to face our whole history. That said, if you follow this blog you know I’ve been reading a fair amount about the brutal side lately. So I was pleasantly surprised — the short stories in this collection are as clear eyed and critical as his other work, but Nguyen focuses here on the emotional toll of being human. No less brutal, but somehow easier to read. That’s probably not good — we’re conditioned to accept that psychological damage is a fact of life. But I found these stories about betrayal, deception, addiction, grief, inequity, racism, disappointment and pain less challenging to read than chapter 21 of The Sympathizer, which is a detailed description of multiple torture sessions during wartime and its aftermath.

I guess the stories in The Refugees seem more familiar, and also, like the Sympathizer, remind me that for all the pain, there is also love. In “Someone Else Beside You,” for example, the father is in many ways an awful, violent, duplicitous person. But even though he only knows the most brutal ways to express it, he clearly loves his son. In several cases, while the characters are refugees the story is about something anyone might go through — a father who doesn’t approve of his daughter’s choices in “The Americans,” a man duped by a dishonest friend in “The Transplant,” a woman dealing with her husband’s increasing dementia in “I’d Love You to Want Me.” Without sounding too kumbaya, that’s what we need — stories about diverse communities that help us all understand we’re the same in some very basic ways, so the structures we’ve built up to raise white able people born in a particular place over others are absolutely ridiculous and have no basis in our humanity.

And these stories are not only important — Nguyen is such a good writer. In “Black-Eyed Women,” this paragraph really manages to orient reader’s to the narrator’s relationship with her mother in a brief, beautiful passage: “Ever since my father died a few years ago, my mother and I lived together politely. We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk. She constantly fed me gossip and stories, the only kind I enjoyed concerning my father back when he was a man I did not know, young and happy. Then came stories of terror like the one about the reporter, the moral being that life, like the police, enjoys beating people up now and again. Finally, there was her favorite kind, the ghost story, of which she knew many, some firsthand.”

At the ACRL keynote, someone asked Nguyen about ghosts in his work. He said that in some cultures, ghosts visit because they are seeking justice. In The Refugees Nguyen contributes to America’s narrative plentitude by adding to our collective story lives we must see if we’re ever to satisfy those ghosts.

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If you’ve followed this blog for any time you know I’m a Margaret Drabble fan. At some point in the last year I came across the 1967 paperback edition of her 1963 debut novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. I read it over the past few days. It’s marvelous, and shows that she was already a powerful, insightful, beautiful, feminist writer at age twenty-four. It makes me both very glad she became a writer and very irritated with my own twenty-four year old self. I was still pretty silly at that age. And had certainly not come into my own thinking by then.

A Summer Bird-Cage is about two sisters. Louise, the elder of the two, who has been “down from” Oxford for a couple of years, and Sarah, who has just come down and then spent some time in Paris. She gets a letter summoning her home to be a bridesmaid for Louise’s wedding — a surprise, since she had no idea Louise was engaged. The rest of the book is comprised of Sarah’s reflections on that time and the months that followed, and what it’s like to be young, well educated, and female at a time when society’s expectations of women are still pretty limited.

At one point one of Louise’s friends asks Sarah what she’d like to do with her life, and she answers immediately, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis . . . .” But she goes on just a few lines later, after the friend calls her “a little egghead,” arguing the term but owning the sentiment and then protesting, “But if you think that implies that my right place is sitting in some library, you couldn’t be more wrong . . . .” But she immediately misses the library. All this after a page or two earlier she told her sister she couldn’t teach at a college because “You can’t be a sexy don.” Sarah is seriously conflicted, in other words. She and Louise talk about wanting it all — love, freedom, intellectual challenge, satisfying work, etc.

In addition to being a novel of social commentary, it’s also, as all of Drabble’s work seems to be, a gorgeous examination of relationships. There are Louise and Sarah, sisters who haven’t been close but come together as they begin to understand each other as adults in a way they didn’t when they were younger. And there is Sarah and her fiancee, absent the entire book, a fellow scholar who’s studying at Harvard. And Sarah and her close friend Gill, who she tries living with in London after Gill’s marriage of equals turns out to be drudgery and falls apart. And Sarah and her cousins, the boring and unattractive Daphne and her brother, the far more attractive Michael.

Drabble is so insightful about human nature. Take this passage, after Sarah and Gill have had a routine roommates’ quarrel about washing the dishes:

Sarah begins, “But I really wanted to tell you about Louise.” And Gill replies, “So you did . . . . You came in full of Louise, and I shut you up like a clam, and here I’ve been going on about you not telling me things. Isn’t it strange how in this kind of thing everything seems to be its own opposite? You know what I mean?”

Sarah thinks, “Again, I did know what she meant, and the joy of having had so many intelligible things said to me during one morning sustained me for the rest of the day. Odd, that one doesn’t mind being called insensitive, selfish, and so on, provided that one can entirely understand the grounds for the accusation. It should be the other way round; one should not mind only when one knows that one is innocent. But it isn’t like that. Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

Think of that, the next time you get into a spat with your roommate.

A delightful read, short but just lovely. The final page has one of those Drabble specialities, an anecdote one character shares and the other thinks something insightful about. I loved every word.

 

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I actually got The Water Is Wide a year ago at a library book sale. I have family in South Carolina and while visiting got to talking about Dafuskie island and when we saw thus book they explained that what Pat Conroy calls “Yamacraw” in the book is really Dafuskie. I’ve seen The Water Is Wide described as a novel and as a memoir, but other than changing the name of the island I’m not sure what else Conroy fictionalized. It’s the story of his time – just over a year around 1969 – teaching at the island’s small school.

At the time almost the entire island was black, except for an older white couple he describes as having both a “paternalistic” and a “symbiotic” relationship with the islanders. Much of South Carolina, and the South in general, was still reeling from the end of Jim Crow and the relatively recent integration of schools. Being virulently, openly racist was common. Not that racism is uncommon today — it’s still alive and well, it’s just hidden behind politer language. But that’s another story.

The Water Is Wide is shocking and anger inducing in some ways. Conroy relates that when he took over his class of 18 children, 6 didn’t know the alphabet. None knew who the president was. Several couldn’t count or spell their own names. When the superintendent eventually fired him for his radical views that children, including poor black children, should get an adequate education and not be beaten and screamed at (as a fellow teacher did) the school board upheld his firing, and so did a court. His draft board status was changed to intimidate him. One of the grandmothers on the island who defended him didn’t get her social security check for months after speaking out.

While that’s all terrible, Conroy is a consummate storyteller and he finds the humor even in the darkest situations. He’s also very observant and self aware and can poke fun at himself, and recognizes that at times he was young and inexperienced and self righteous but also that he learned a great deal. He relates not only mean spirited and prejudiced resistance to change but also kindheartedness and “gradual and slow change.” He also manages to be empathetic to some of the most dreadful people in the story – the woman who beat the children for example – contextualizing their lives for readers and analyzing what caused some people to have such blinders to basic humanity. But he pulls no punches either – I especially appreciate how he notes the irony of some of the blackest souled racist behavior coming from people who loudly proclaimed their Christianity as a badge of character.

So, this is a good read and I think helpful to understanding the ridiculously intractable grip of racism, and the legacy of the inequity in our educational system.

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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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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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