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Posts Tagged ‘America’

This was my last week off before grad school starts back up again, and coming off a stack of thick novels I decided to read some nonfiction. I picked up Seeds at the Five Colleges Booksale last spring. I love trees, and this book is about Richard Horan‘s travels to various writers’ (and a few other important cultural figures’) homes to gather seeds from trees that would have been around at the time the person lived there (witness trees). His longer term plan was to plant them and grow new trees.

It was a pleasant read for a stressful week — those of you who work in higher ed know that the weeks between semesters are crammed — and I enjoyed it, although by the end I was ready to move on. Horan is passionate about his project and meets interesting people along the way. He strikes a good balance between talking about his travels and seed gathering and sharing interesting information about both the trees and the people whose homes he visits. His project is interesting, although the website he set up to tell the continuing adventures of the trees doesn’t seem to be around anymore, so I’m not sure how things turned out.

In the “extras” section in the back of the book there are some anecdotes he heard about Betty Smith (yes, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) from people who knew her, and that was a real gem that I wish wasn’t hidden past the end of the book. Horan’s writing is at its best when he is enthusing about something that had a lasting impact on him, whether a book he read when he was young or a person he met on the trips for this book. I also enjoyed his willingness to engage in unvarnished and deserved critique here and there, whether about the white-washing of historical sites (example: there are no slave cabins at Mount Vernon and white people hoe the garden when Horan visits; I think shortly after, a slave quarters did open), the devastating tree cutting at Gettysburg National Military Park (which took out witness trees along with those the park service wanted to be rid of), or our one size fits all education system. That said, he’s a little hard on docents. They’re just volunteers, man, they are probably doing the best they can.

Seeds is more than what my Dad calls a “palate cleanser,” but is still easy to dip into if you don’t have the bandwidth for something heavier. It made me want to read Eudora Welty immediately. I admit to cringing here and there at some lines that clanked for me, but then I’d come across something like this description of Welty’s eyes, “scattering thoughts and sucking air out of every head and chest they made contact with.” Or his Bill Bryson-like description of yelling back and forth to be heard over construction machinery with the Yaddo publicist about the famous literary retreat’s noise mitigation efforts.

Recommended for anyone who likes trees, books, and/or travel narratives.

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I broke my “read only Europa Editions ’til the end of the year” streak this week, because my local bookstore, Gibson’s, hosted Abdi Nor Iftin on Friday, so I wanted to read his book and hear him speak. Call Me American is the story of his growing up in Somalia, living through years of war and violence, and coming to America. Things are definitely not ideal in America right now, but if you want a fuller appreciation for why people around the world still look to us as a place to come and live in peace and freedom, you should read this book. If he’s touring near you, go hear him speak, too; there is nothing like hearing someone’s story in person.

I cannot imagine, nor can anyone I know imagine, what it was like for Iftin growing up in Mogadishu. Between the expectation that even as a small child, he must get water and food for his family, the requirement that he attend a madrassa where he was beaten when he didn’t do well enough or had done something considered evil (like watch American movies) out of a belief that this would make him a good Muslim, and the fact that he could not get an education (beyond memorizing the Koran) or a job and had to create his own, I was amazed with each chapter. Iftin didn’t even just survive, he survived with faith, hope and compassion intact. He still supports the imam who beat him, because he feels grateful that he knows the Koran and he understands the man sincerely believed he was doing right by the children he beat. Incredible!

So I have no doubt that Iftin is an extraordinary person, not to mention a very good storyteller, and that is part of what makes this memoir appealing. But in the back of my mind as I read, I thought about the grave injustice that our world flocks to the Iftins and abandons those who don’t have the charisma, grace, and strength he does. In fact, the only reason he is where he is today is because he made opportunities for himself at every turn — teaching himself English, introducing himself to a white man he saw on a balcony who turned out to be a reporter, and then working for both NPR and the BBC telling the story of life under warlords and Islamic fundamentalists. And it is right that people who heard his story through their speakers thousands of miles and a culture away rallied to help him and get him out.

But so many others are still living with the danger, fear, and deprivation that he grew up with and on the whole, Americans are fairly happy feeling good about stories like Iftin’s and then going back to our comfortable lives. We may give to charity and write to Congress when things seem really bad, but how often do we do any more than that? And what more can and should we do? In many regards, there is literally nothing we can do because the power systems in the world are completely aligned against the powerless and most governments adhere to a fear-based immigration system.

Maybe it’s a small thing, but one thing we can do is learn people’s stories. Learn about the systems that are hurting people and ironically building up the very extremism they are meant to protect against. I had no idea that Somalis in Kenya can’t work — I thought that the international refugee resettlement system was fairly consistent everywhere, and that if you are recognized as a refugee, you can start a resettled life. Iftin’s brother has been living in limbo for fifteen years in Nairobi, officially a refugee but not allowed to legally live there, or anywhere. That is the situation for Somalis — and there are refugees from dozens of other places, so it’s likely there are millions more who are not on the smooth path to resettlement. Especially now that the U.S. has decided to take thousands fewer refugees each year.

What can I do with this knowledge? I’m not sure. For starters I can keep contacting my elected officials and telling them I want America to remain a welcoming place for those who need a new home. I can learn about the places they come from, beyond the headlines. I can also make sure that beyond just saying hello when I hear someone whose accent reveals they are from somewhere else, I can tell them I’m glad they are here, and ask how things are going. That doesn’t seem like enough though. I don’t have answers. I just know this book made the world smaller for me. One thing I can do is write about how powerful it is and ask you to do read it. You’ll be glad you did and your view of the world will not be the same.

 

 

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When I read A Tale for the Time Being I knew I’d want to read more of Ruth Ozeki’s work. The friends whose house I’m staying at this week happened to have My Year of Meats on their shelves, so I decided that was sign. Also, the protagonist is a documentary filmmaker, which sort of segues from the previous two books I read, which both had something to do with the contemporary art scene.  Looking at the rest of the pile of books I’ve brought I’m not sure I can keep spooling out these connections, but we’ll see.

Anyway, My Year of Meats was Ozeki’s debut novel, and it’s stunning in more ways than one. Jane, the protagonist, is a Japanese American who is hired to film a series of programs promoting American beef, called “My American Wife!” The series will feature “real” American families and their beef recipes. Jane and her Japanese crew set off across America but Jane’s documentarian streak rebels at her remit and she keeps veering slightly off course, in ways that annoy the beef promotion syndicate’s boss, Joichi Ueno (“You get it? ‘John Wayno’!” Ueno asks in a Mississippi church). For example, Jane features lesbian vegetarians from Northampton in one of her episodes.

In the course of the story, Jane hears from Ueno’s wife, Akiko, who asks her about another issue that came to light in Jane’s research: whether hormones in the meat industry are contributing to lower fertility rates. This deeply impacts Jane, as she is a DES daughter — someone whose mother was prescribed DES to prevent miscarriage. when Jane realizes she has come across a feedlot in Colorado that is using the banned hormone, she risks everything — her job, her relationship, and even her health — to get her crew in to film before Ueno can arrive from Japan to foil her plan.

The book has a second set of storylines as strong as that one. Jane’s relationship with a musician named Sloan and her own fertility issues, and Akiko’s relationship with Ueno and parallel issues. Both Jane and Akiko are fans of Shonagon and her Pillow Book, which Ozeki quotes between chapters. The women make contact, initially, via faxes, which others read with various complications. It is charming and a little strange, to think that a few short years after the time of this novel, intercepted faxes would no longer be a viable plot twist.

This is in some ways a brutal read; there are horrible domestic violence scenes and the final filming Jane and her crew do in a slaughterhouse is awful. But despite the brutality the book is about truth and is also in many ways a celebration of love, and about the strength of these to overcome ignorance and pain. It’s also a philosophical study of collective ignorance.

Ozeki writes in Jane’s voice, “. . . ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence. I would like to think of my ‘ignorance’ less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend, an example of doubling, of psychic numbing, that characterizes the end of the millennium. If we can’t act on knowledge, then we can’t survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even.” This in a book written in 1998, set in 1992. Look where ignorance, and our cultural cultivation of it, has taken us.

Anyway, this isn’t a light read, but it’s a page turner. I really wanted to know what was going to happen to Jane, to Akiko, to the women in My American Wife!, to Jane’s crew and her mom and Sloan, so I tore through it. If you’re looking for a smart, challenging beach read this summer, this would be a good choice!

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Two people told me about this book recently, one who loved it and one who did not even like it. I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. I think it is an important story, one that touches on important issues in our culture and also tells a compelling story. It’s heart-wrenching, but there is also a redemptive piece that makes it more lovely than sad.  wouldn’t say it’s a hopeful book, however, given the realities of our country.

Sing Unburied Sing is set in coastal Mississippi, and it’s the story of JoJo, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his mother Leonie (although she isn’t always there) and her parents, Pop and Mam, as well as his toddler sister, Kayla. His father, Michael, is in a prison called Parchman, the same prison where Pop was sent as a young man, back when Jim Crow still ran the South. Pop tells JoJo stories about his time at Parchman, and they all feature a boy around JoJo’s age, Richie, who was a prisoner with Pop.

Michael is white, and his parents, especially his father, think of Leonie as a “nigger bitch.” They have nothing to do with her or their grandchildren. Pop and Mam are poor, but Pop grows a garden and tends animals and keeps his family well fed. Mam has been a healer all her life, making herbal remedies and praying to a mixture of Catholic and Voodoo saints. Mostly, they provide the children love and a kind of stability.

The book follows these characters through a period of just a few tumultuous days, as Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes the children and her friend Misty to go pick him up, and Mam’s cancer reaches a critical stage. But even though the action only takes up a short time, we learn a tremendous amount about the characters. How Given, Leonie’s older brother, and Richie, the boy Pop knew at Parchman haunt them. How Leonie and JoJo each deal with those hauntings. How addiction and mass incarceration and systemic racism and the long shadow of lynchings and police brutality and more everyday violence and the hard work of being poor impact them all, deeply, generationally, indelibly.

The hauntings and the faith in VooDoo comforts like a gris-gris bag Pop gives JoJo and the stones Mam asks Leonie to gather from the cemetery as her life withers away make this book more than a straight up narrative; there is a sense of mysticism to it. Somehow Ward makes the characters seem both concrete and symbolic, people with real lives and also people who represent millions of lives, millions of souls touched by the myriad harms of being poor and black in America.

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NoViolet Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe, where her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, opens. Darling, a ten year old girl, spends her days with a small group of friends, stealing guavas in wealthy neighborhoods, playing games in the dust of Paradise, the collection of shacks where their families started over after their middle class neighborhood was bulldozed. Darling can remember their previous life, when her parents had jobs, and she went to school. It’s the early 2000’s; the children play “Find bin Laden,” and one character who dies in political unrest has a sign on his grave that lists his date of death as 2008. The story follows Darling for a few years, from Paradise, where her grandmother turns to God as interpreted by a preacher named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, to Michigan, where her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives.

I chose this book from a display at my library of books with yellow covers, one of the categories in our summer reading program’s book bingo. I usually like novels about places I haven’t been and lives I haven’t experienced.  Although it’s fiction, this book is firmly rooted in reality, and for a privileged white reader, it’s pretty uncomfortable. People from NGOs and the BBC watch and photograph Darling and her friends and their families, as if they are an exotic species. Americans are clueless and judgmental about African countries and cultures. And of course, our immigration system denies people the new life they hope for; even as various people feel sorry for what’s happening in Zimbabwe, the African immigrants in the book work menial jobs, regardless of how educated they are. They can’t go home, because without official resident status they won’t be allowed to come back to their homes and work — and their American born children. The way Bulawayo portrayed whites caused me to feel as if I didn’t really even deserve to be reading Darlings’s story.

Although reading about the poverty, violence, and pain of Darling’s early childhood is tough — she has a friend her age whose grandfather rapes and impregnates her, her own father returns from South Africa, where he went to try and find work, when he is in the final stages of AIDS, Darling and her friends watch a group of young black men smash up a wealthy white couple’s home — the despair she feels in America is worse. Her family in Zimbabwe pressures her to tell her aunt they need money for a satellite dish; they are living in a nice house now, that Aunt Fostalina has purchased by working two jobs and getting herself into credit card debt. Darling has begun working two low wage jobs herself. Towards the end of the book, she tries to Skype with her mother and the only person home seems to be her old friend Chipo, who named her baby after Darling, but who scorns her now, telling her Zimbabwe is not her country because she left.

Of course, Darling didn’t choose, her mother and aunt decided she would go to America, and in America, adults — either those she knows or those who created the laws and cultural norms that influence her young life — decide much of what she does. The ending is a flashback to a painful memory seared in Darling’s mind, from her early days in Paradise. This has the effect of illustrating what a circle of futility Darling’s life has been to this point. She thinks she has not been at home since the time when her family was stable and safe. She is not home in the place that was meant to offer a new beginning. She can’t go back to the home she left, where her heart seems to remain.

Bulawayo conveys all that longing and unfulfilled promise and the geopolitical and cultural mess the adults in Darling’s world have unthinkingly unleashed upon her generation. She writes Darling’s voice as a small girl and then as a young adolescent and finally as the book ends, as a young woman. Darling, like many children, often thinks figuratively, as in this passage describing mourners at a political activist’s funeral, who had only recently been praying after the election: “They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks, mauling whoever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshipers folded like a butterfly’s wings, and the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.” A book I’m glad I read for the same reason I exercise — I know it’s good for me, even when it’s hard.

 

 

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I worked with many publicity professionals during my time at Gibson’s and then writing a book review column. A couple still stay in touch and occasionally send a book and one of those people is Scott Manning. When he tells me a book is worth reading it invariably is, and recently he sent me Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. I read it this week for one of the “Reader’s Choice” squares on my book bingo card.

To say this book is eye-opening isn’t really accurate — Dunbar tells readers what they could see pretty easily, if they paid any attention to American history. The south had slaves, lots of them, and the first President was a southerner. Mount Vernon was a plantation that depended on slave labor, one of a network of such farms belonging to the Washingtons and to Martha’s Custis relatives. And while some history books like to point out that George Washington had mixed feelings about slavery, he also signed the Fugitive Slave Act, in part because many Northern states were already beginning to move towards abolition and Southerners were afraid that runaway slaves would be beyond their grasp unless the federal government made it illegal to help them. And the Fugitive Slave Act did that, as Dunbar explains, “To be clear, those who purposely interfered with the recapturing of a slave, or who offered aid or assistance to a fugitive, could be fined an exorbitant amount — $500 — imprisoned, and be sued by the slaveholder in question.”

I will add, some details about the extent of the Washingtons’ efforts to keep people enslaved, to punish slaves who seemed in their views not to work hard enough or to have bad attitudes, and to flout Pennsylvania’s laws (they rotated slaves back to Mount Vernon in order that they not stay more than 6 months in Philadelphia, because they would have then been free), were new to me. Based on my very informal poll, which consisted of telling everyone around me about what I was reading and gauging their reactions,  these facts are not well known.

Dunbar’s writing about Washington is interesting but what makes her book stand out is the story of Ona Judge, a young woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon who as a teenager became Martha Washington’s personal attendant. Studies have shown that telling an individual’s story, for example in order to solicit funds for a massive humanitarian crisis, is highly effective, and Never Caught is a fine example of that psychological impact at work.

In telling Judge’s story Dunbar masterfully places the focus not on harsh treatment or back-breaking labor — Judge’s work was constant but not physically harmful, and she was not beaten or raped as far as the record shows — but on the undeniable, inhumane, supreme injustice of a person being owned by another person. Judge had no say in the matters of her life which free people take for granted. Even once she was “free” and even after the Washingtons both died, Judge was technically a fugitive, owned by the Custis family, and her children were technically born slaves, even though she raised them in relative freedom. At any time, someone could capture her and her family and take them back to Virginia and that would have been legal.

But fortunately, Judge ended up in New Hampshire, and apparantly people in my adopted state had the beginnings of a “live free or die” attitude and even the prominent and the powerful in New Hampshire were not always willing to tow the line politically. Washington did in fact track Judge down and tried to call in favors to get her back, but New Hampshire’s independent thinkers, and Judge’s own very strong desire to remain free, protected her. Yet she did not have a happily ever after life, and Dunbar spares no details in pointing out the suffering that Judge and her family experienced. Again, you may have learned about slavery in school, but did you ever think of how soul-permeating  the impact of being owned really was? Some free blacks prospered but Dunbar makes clear that for many others being an escapee was a life sentence of poverty, ill health, and struggle.

Dunbar’s book is full of details of post-Revolutionary America, and observations about the people who were already working to end slavery. It’s a painful read when considered in light of the continuing racial injustices in America, and it’s hard not to wonder if the founders had abolished slavery in the Constitution, how different things might have turned out. One tiny quibble I have, and this is likely an issue of my own taste — is that Dunbar sometimes speculates about the emotions of her subjects. For example, in writing about Judge’s son, Dunbar states, “His mother’s depression must have been suffocating.” Or “To Judge, Whipple seemed like a nice enough man; that is, he hadn’t yet called for the constable to have her arrested.” I think telling readers that Judge’s lot in life was pretty miserable by the time her 16 year old son decided to become a sailor is enough — readers can conclude that he probably didn’t want to be around her misery. Similarly, the exchange between Whipple (a man who realized who Judge was as she was applying for work) and Judge makes clear that she was able to continue the conversation, which is enough evidence that she didn’t feel he was a threat; we don’t need to be told Judge thought he was nice, which ventures into speculation.

To be clear, maybe somewhere in Dunbar’s research she came across something that said Judge thought Whipple was nice, I don’t know. I just don’t like the speculative style of nonfiction fiction writing that seems to be popular right now, and I blame it on the overly dramatic “historical re-creation” television programs that are ubiquitous. But this happens only rarely in Never Caught, which is otherwise an interesting and horrifying account of the beginnings of the split in our early union and the deplorable toll slavery took on people. And the well told story of a woman I’d guess most Americans have never heard of.

As for my other Reader’s Choice? Something completely different. I had a crummy week last week so I lost myself in a light read, Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. It’s everything an escapist read should be: funny, smart, and romantic. Plus, there are mouth watering descriptions of cooking, lovely descriptions of the Cotswolds, and sly jabs at high powered law firms and the newly rich. When Kinsella’s heroine, Sam, finds she has made a 50 million pound error on the very day she is supposed to hear whether she made partner at the most successful and prestigious firm in London, she freaks out and gets on a train. When she gets out she has a terrible headache, so knocks on a door to see if she can figure out where she is and ask for a glass of water. The person who answers the door thinks Sam is a housekeeping applicant. She gets the job she didn’t apply for and has no idea how to do — she isn’t even sure how the washing machine works or how to turn on the oven. Who helps her? A handsome and sensitive gardener and his kind mother. Romantic comedy that is screen-worthy. I’d go see it.

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