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After wasting two evenings on a book I could not get into (One Part Woman — unlikeable characters, glacial plot), I turned to another Europa Editions book: The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland. It’s a page turner, unlike many of Europa’s titles. In fact, last night I put my iPad down and tried to go to sleep and then tossed and turned for a long time, wondering what was going to happen and why the main character couldn’t see what was happening.

This book has a LOT of moving parts. It’s mainly the story of Jay Gladstone, a very wealthy real estate magnate and NBA owner, and how his life — and all his good fortune — falls apart. But woven into Gladstone’s story are many smaller stories, casting a bright light on a number of unsavory aspects of modern American society.

There’s an ambitious DA who wants to run for governor and makes decisions on two cases of white men killing black men based only on her electoral calculations, and not on justice. There is a ridiculous, expensive liberal arts college where people create their own majors and children play at being revolutionaries — until it isn’t play anymore. There is media that is out only for the sound of its own highly amplified voice, regardless of whether the stories it reports are true in any way. There are callous, spoiled rich wives, conniving family members, a hacker for hire, a radicalized ex-con Imam, overpaid athletes and the entourages they support. There is racism, anti-semitism, and all the other tensions and biases our culture holds around gender, sexual preference, class, power and its lack.

Jay Gladstone is a pleasingly complicated character, but he’s a man who truly tries to be good, and for a fair bit of the book I was waiting for him to be vindicated. Yes, he’s a little pompous, and a little too sure of his own position in life, and he blunders around making things worse, but it seems like his being brought low might have caused a transformation. Readers, however, don’t get to see what happens when he hits bottom, for reasons I can’t explain without giving too much away. Still, watching him fight to hang onto life as he knows it is a challenge (I found myself telling him to wake up and stop being stubborn), given that his rotten, conceited, dishonorable, selfish cousin seems to get away with his most grievous transgression.

A villain worth despising, a hero who isn’t perfect but makes the reader want to root for him, some terrific supporting characters you’ll love to love and hate. The frothy world of the rich and influential, with enough regular people to draw a contrast. It’s a novel Jane Austen could love — full of references to culture and society and brimming with the vagaries of human nature.  I enjoyed it, even though I thought the end was a little rushed, and a bit of a let down. But overall, a smart, sharp-eyed, entertaining, engrossing story.  Just don’t read it right before bed, or you’ll be mulling over which twists and turns Gladstone should have seen and what he could have done differently until late into the night.

 

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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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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’m participating in my local library’s winter reading program, which is a book bingo card. One of the squares I needed to get my first “bingo” (five squares in a row) was “A book set in a place you’d like to visit.” I thought of Iceland, and came across Names for the Sea. It’s the story of novelist and literature professor Sarah Moss‘s year teaching at the University of Iceland, and her family’s life in Reykjavik.

They arrived in 2009, shortly after Iceland’s financial crisis led to widespread hardship for Icelanders — and seriously eroded her own family’s income, since she’d be paid in krona. She and her husband and two small boys ended up in a brand new apartment with triple glazed windows and heated floors in an otherwise empty building. Being English and thus, as far as I can tell, having a penchant for mild suffering and inconvenience so long as there’s tea and biscuits afterwards, they try to live without a car, and soon discover that outside the tourist center, Reykjavik isn’t designed for walking. (The Computer Scientist is half English; although he rarely drinks tea he does prefer to “suck it up” more than is strictly necessary, especially when it comes to walking in cities. I’d say he frequently manifests a sort of an Americanized stiff upper lip attitude that is admirable at times, but can often lead to blisters and sunburn.) Moss actually purchases a bike and cycles to work even once the weather is so cold she can’t feel her face. But once she describes driving in Iceland, readers can’t really blame her for wanting to walk or bike.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a personal essay in a small, sadly now out of print journal for stay-at-home parents (mostly mothers, at the time) called Welcome Home. The essay was titled “Winter Escapes for Moms,” and it was about surviving Seattle winters (long, wet, and grey) with two small children by reading this genre — books about people who up and move to a new country. I’ve read a fair number of this kind of book, and I can say that Names for the Sea is wonderful for several reasons.

First, Moss is quite honest about the pitfalls of life in Iceland and the depth of her feeling foreign for most of the year. She actually knows enough Icelandic to get by, but describes feeling helpless: “I still can’t say the Icelandic words I have in my head, and still can’t bear the arrogance of asking people to speak English for me, and still, therefore, mutter and smile as if I had no language at all.” She’s also honest when she is baffled by certain cultural differences, such as the lack of any second hand market for clothes or furniture, despite the economic downturn. And instead of raving about culinary adventures as some travel writers do, she is honest about how much her family misses fruit and vegetables and how difficult it is to feed children in a strange land where whale meat and split sheep’s heads are in the grocery store.

Moss is also intensely curious about Iceland. She writes beautifully about her experiences talking to Icelanders about all kinds of things — life in the country pre-WWII, what it was like in Vestmannaeyjar when the Eldfell volcano erupted, burying some houses in lava and others in ash right up to the ceilings. Finding out about Icelandic knitting, fiction, and film. Learning about crime rates, gender roles, parenting styles, cars and road safety, the presence of elves, what life is like for foreigners who marry Icelanders, what long daylight and long darkness and the many levels of cold are like. How the economy impacts people (or not) and how Icelanders feel about inequality. All of this is interesting in Moss’s thoughtful hands, and she is respectful even when she cannot understand her adopted home or agree with its inhabitants’ views. Also, she and her family go back for a summer holiday the year after they return to the UK, and the final chapter offers her appreciation for Iceland a year on, and insights into some changes she observes once the economic recovery seems to be underway, which is interesting.

Names for the Sea manages to be both enchanting, as all winter escape reading should be, and also unvarnished. I liked it very much, and I’m curious to seek out Moss’s fiction and her other nonfiction; on her website I found that each one of her books sounds interesting to me, and it’s been some time since I’ve found myself wanting to read everything someone has written. Her blog is also interesting.

 

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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I have blogged about books for nearly eight years. I’m a voracious reader, a librarian and a book reviewer with a monthly newspaper column. I was an English major, I write poetry, and I like thinking about, discussing, and writing about books. But I hit a philosophical wall a couple of weeks ago: does what I think about what I’m reading really matter? Or more specifically, what is the point of blogging about it?

In the midst of this existential mid-life angst I was pining a bit for my old “citizen blogger” gig at New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth. From December 2008-September 2011 I wrote 61 posts on new ideas in science, culture, the arts, and society. (If you’re curious, I think the pieces are archived on the NHPR website). It was a terrific gig. I wrote about whatever caught my eye as long as it fit the show’s editorial focus. That tended to be things that gave me hope.

Two stories I can’t get out of my head are the opposite of hopeful. First, teacher and author Peter Brown Hoffmeister spoke out about Huffington Post ignoring and dismissing him. What he’d done was submit a piece suggesting it would be a good idea to study the effect of violent video games on isolated teens who exhibit other risk factors for violence, and to offer socially disaffected kids an alternative to fantasy violence, such as getting outside.

Hoffmeister was himself a teen with violent tendencies and says, “the outdoors helped saved my life.” He writes with uncommon humbleness and uncertainty, unafraid to admit what he personally and we as a society don’t know about what makes shooters act. He doesn’t demonize guns, video games, or teens.

Second, yesterday I read Emily Bazelon’s piece on Slate about Rehtaeh Parsons and Steubenville, and today learned the hacker group Anonymous solved the Parsons case in 2 hours despite the police saying there was “no evidence” of rape. Every part of this story makes me churn.

Last week I read about Desmond Tutu receiving the Templeton Prize. I cherish his wisdom, and I turn to him when I am heartsick over the news. He’s a model for experiencing joy in the midst of our hurting world, for reconciling the broken pieces to find wholeness whether it’s in a form we recognize and understand or not.

“A person is a person through other persons,” Tutu says. I can’t stop thinking that therefore I am me through Rehtaeh Parsons, and her mother, and the Anonymous hackers who said she deserved justice, and Peter Brown Hoffmeister, caring for the boys in the school where he teaches who compare notes on their virtual killing. But if this is so I am somehow also me through the boys who would dehumanize and wreck a girl so heartlessly and the investigators who were complicit in that heartlessness, the editor who refused to let a story of vulnerability and healing appear on a popular website likely supported by corporations that profit from violent media, and the shooters who kill innocent victims.

And I am me though the authors I read and write about. I’ll probably still write about books. But I’m going to try to write some posts on the conscious side of bookconscious. I am a strong believer in the power of literature to connect and transform us as individuals and sometimes as a culture. But in the mire of media that saturates our lives, there are also stories, hopeful or not, that remind me we are persons through other persons. And I hope to write about those as well.

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I picked up The Polish Boxer expecting excellent literary fiction — it’s published by Bellevue Literary Press. What I got was that and much more; a semi-autobiographical tale of a Guatemalan Jew, a trip around the world, insight into Balkan cultural fragmentation, jazz and the nature of improvisation, Gypsy music and culture particularly in Belgrade, the meaning of fiction and its place in reality, the preservation of Holocaust stories,the human psyche’s adaptation of beliefs and mythology/storytelling as a way to reconcile daily life with universal truths . . . . I could go on, but it would be better if you would just read this genre-bending novel for yourself.

In publicity materials and interviews, Eduardo Halfon has described the book as semi-autobiographical, and he’s said, “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”  The book felt to me like a novel-in-stories, especially in the early chapters, which follow the main character (also called Eduardo) from his literature classes at a Guatelmalan university to literary conferences in North Carolina and Portugal to the streets of Belgrade, where he is looking for a half-Serbian, half-Roma pianist he met at an arts festival in Guatemala.

We meet his lover, Lia, his musician friend Milan, and an eminent Twain scholar who recognizes Eduardo’s b.s. at a conference and chooses to tell jokes when it is his turn to speak. We also meet Eduardo’s grandfather, Leon. Leon is an Auschwitz survivor whose story of a fellow Pole, a boxer, coaching him to survive his trial becomes truth to Eduardo, until he reads another version of the story in a newspaper interview Leon gives shortly before his death. In the new version, there is no Polish boxer; Leon survives by other means.

This revelation causes Eduardo to say, in his speech at a conference in Portugal on how “Literature Tears Through Reality,” “Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.” He recounts the ending of an Ingmar Bergman film, Shame, and explains, “That is exactly what literature is like. As we write we know there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.”

I’ve only just finished The Polish Boxer so I’m not sure I’ve fully processed what it’s said to me about reality. But it’s a book full of sex, smoking and drinking, language, music, friendship, culture and identity. It’s about loss — the kind you feel without really understanding what it is that’s missing, only knowing it’s not there.

It’s about whether or not a Gypsy pirouetting means anything, and what it means, and what meaning means. It’s about the ways people in a Belgrade slum and a Guatemalan village and a Polish neighborhood and Brooklyn and a million other places live and love and get by the same as you and I. It’s about love, not just between lovers, but love of family and love of place, love of tribe (by birth or by art), love of humanity and the way love is the humanity between us, even at times when hate is the currency of power.

It’s about the need to write, to tell what urgently needs to be told, or to sing it or play it. It’s about poetry, which in the Mayan language Cakchikel  is “a braid of words . . . an embroidered blouse of words.”  That’s it too: The Polish Boxer is an embroidered blouse of words. And a tattoo on on old man’s arm,of his number at Auschwitz, the one he told his grand-kids was a phone number. And it’s the patterns we fall into, in loving and judging each other. In defining the world around us. In making reality and writing it into our consciousness.

Confused? Don’t be. I can’t do this book justice. Get yourself to your local bookstore or your library and ask for Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer. Get comfortable — the most frustrating thing about reading this book was that I didn’t have a good long stretch to read it in one sitting. Pour yourself a drink. Put on some music — jazz, gypsy, or whatever inspires your heart to longing. And enjoy this magical, unreal trip through reality.

 

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