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I have read a number of books about equity over the past several years. I’ve also heard various books recommended or critiqued by people learning to be antiracist. The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone by Heather McGhee is unique in that every person who has told me about this book had not only highly recommended it, but had different reasons for raving. For nerds, there is data. For organizers, there are examples of what’s worked. For those new to this work, it’s clear. For those feeling frustrated by racism and greed, there is encouragement. It’s a hopeful book, because McGhee has the clarity and depth of knowledge not only of the intricacies of our racial inequity in America but also of the ways even the most intransigent issues can be overcome. Her life’s work has been analyzing inequity and advocating for policy changes. What strikes me is that she has incredible empathy and listens deeply, because she tells story after story of people being incredibly honest with her about their views.

The main point of The Sum of Us is that the zero sum narrative we’ve all been told — that if any group of people receives some benefit, such as affirmative action, higher pay, universal health care, etc. — others will lose is both false and is at its core, a racist lie. In example after example, relating to jobs, health, housing, environmental safety, financial security, education, neighborhood vibrancy, and more, McGhee cites research and real life example of how multiracial coalitions working for antiracist solutions can win better lives for everyone. McGhee calls this these societal benefits the “solidarity dividend.”

The ways racism is upheld in our laws and policies, the brokenness of American democracy, the damage dealt to most of us by unbridled capitalism, are problems so huge and seemingly intractable. One reason this book is so compelling is that although McGhee presents each issue as part of these systemic, interlocking inequities that seems hopeless, she moves on to stories of actual people who have come together to work for a better world, and have succeeded. They have made their communities better, for example, by breaking down segregation and getting to know each other, or by bringing about changes like succeeding in winning a higher minimum wage, holding a polluting factory’s owners accountable, or successfully lobbying for laws ensuring paid time off or other worker protections.

McGhee connects the dots between the vastness of what faces us and the need to work together: “The mounting challenges we face in society are going to require strength and scale that none of us can achieve on her own.” A few pages later she notes, “. . . we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class; we must demand changes to the rules in order to disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy.” McGhee’s infectious optimism, backed by studies and examples, makes it plausible to believe what she says is possible:

“Since this country’s founding, we have not allowed our diversity to be our superpower, and the result is that the United States is not more than the sum of its disparate parts. But it could be. And if it were, all of us would prosper. In short we must emerge from this crisis in our republic with a new birth of freedom, rooted in the knowledge that we are so much more when the “We” in “We the People” is not some of us, but all of us. We are greater than, and greater for, the sum of us.”

The Sum of Us is a kind of civic liberation theology for our time. Add me to the people raving about this book. And re-energized by it to keep on keeping on with the work of making progress for all of us.

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I’ve been reading but not blogging lately, but I’ve read so many good things I want to share briefly about each of them. The Computer Scientist and I just enjoyed a week off from work, as well, so there was more time to read.

First, I’m taking a class over the next two years at EDS at Union on social justice in the Anglican tradition and I have been doing the required reading for our fall semester:

What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls by Kelly Brown Douglas — Douglas is Dean of EDS at Union. This book is her answer to a student at my alma mater (Goucher College) where she taught for many years, who asked why Douglas, a black woman, was a Christian when Christianity helped establish white supremacist, and in particular anti-black, ideas in American culture and upheld racist policies and practices? The student’s question is understandable. What are we to do when some Christians claim or have claimed that violence — slavery and lynching, but also discrimination and dehumanizing teachings — is in line with their beliefs? Douglas wrote this book of theology to respond fully. I learned about “platonized” Christianity, closed monotheism, and other theological notions I can’t say I am completely sure I understand. I look forward to more fully discussing these topics with the community of learners. But what I took away is that it is a distortion of Christianity — and Douglas is clear that means a heresy — to terrorize people. And yet, there are Christians historically and today who believe they are “right” with God and the world when they do so, arguing and even persuading others through interpretation of scripture and tradition that this is so. She examines not only white but also Black churches’ use of power and distorted theology to enact and/or uphold ideas that devalue anyone for any reason (gender, class, sexuality, race, culture or nationality, for example). Her conclusion is that “In effect, the troubling legacy of “Christianity” suggests that it is a religion in which imposing discriminatory power can find theological cover. Hence the truth of Christianity is that is has generated at least two prevailing legacies: one that terrorizes and oppresses and another that empowers and liberates; the first is most defined by whiteness and the second is most defined by blackness.”

The course is going to examine how we can ask questions and stay in relationship with God and each other in ways that help bring the world closer to “God’s just future,” or beloved community, as Dean Douglas told us in our orientation yesterday. It sounds pretty daunting. I’m anxious to learn more.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone — Another book of theology, as well as an examination of lynching in American culture and the responses to our legacy of violent racism in Black activism, music and literature. Cone covers theology, art, literature, and music, as well as the civil rights movement and the history of lynching in America. I’m still processing all the different angles, but for me this book was an affirmation that white Christianity has been timid at best (as Cone describes in critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr, who he admires but finds wanting when it comes to engaging with race) in confronting racism, and has colluded in violence either by silence or by endorsing it with racist theology. Another important takeaway is that there are plenty of Black (and a few white) theologians, writers, artists, and advocates to learn from, people who understand and express in their creativity and resistance what Cone writes of the cross: “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned it into a sign of liberation and new life . . . .” He goes on to note: “Jesus . . . was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States . . . . Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America.” It seems to me that the many ways that our “principalities and powers” continue to lynch, through mass incarceration, police brutality, biased and racist criminal justice policies and procedures, educational and health inequities, and the monitoring, regulation, and criminalization of people because of their race, class, immigration status, or sexual orientation are also the cross in America. It’s a lot to take in.

We are also reading the 1619 project — which by the way is not about hating whiteness or white people, nor about saying that white people haven’t ever helped Black people in their struggle for equity; it is about offering information most of us have not been taught about the importance of Black Americans and their experiences in our history. And it’s about illuminating the legacy of slavery in contemporary America, as well as the painful truth that while some white people have joined the struggle for racial justice in this country, historically, many of us were unaware and/or silent. As historian Leslie M. Harris notes in an essay on the 1619 project, “It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy.” At least two of the authors of the letter written by historians criticizing the project, Harris explains, Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz, gave relatively minimal coverage of slavery and Black experience in their early career, seminal works on American history, and even in more contemporary work, “have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.)”

Our reading list also includes two articles on reparations – one by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the other by Ta-Nahesi Coates. Both of which are terrific.

Which brings me to the next book, Reparations: a Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. This book details the theological and scriptural case for reparations, and then in a clear and practical way lays out the steps needed, from “seeing” the existence and effects of white supremacy through “owning” the ethical response (from a Christian perspective, but anyone could find it useful), which they break into “restitution” and “restoration” through moving into the actual work of reparations: repair. I found this book inspiring as well as illuminating and it seems like a good next step for anyone who has been working on antiracism and wants to understand “what to do” now that you’ve learned about white supremacy. Spoiler: ask Black members of your community how you can support their priorities and efforts, rather than deciding for yourself what to do. Kwon and Thompson bring an ecumenical Christian viewpoint (whereas both Cone and Douglas write from the Episcopal tradition), which was interesting for me. I admit I sometimes take (false) refuge in the notion that I practice my faith in the “empowering and liberating” branch of the Jesus movement. It’s important, I realize, to acknowledge that no one denomination is that branch (not entirely, anyway) and that my own branch hasn’t always been either of those, and sometimes isn’t today.

Which leads nicely to another book I read for a discussion group earlier this summer, which is also on our course reading list, The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for Beloved Community by Stephanie Spellers. Spellers addresses many of the same issues Douglas and Cone do, but with a very current lens: given everything we’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning America is experiencing regarding systemic and intersectional inequities, what should the church do? This was a tough book to read and discuss. Spellers takes on the church as an institution aligned with empire and white supremacy. She imagines recent times as having cracked open the church, using the scriptural story of the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment that she cracks open to anoint Jesus with. Spellers asks readers to imagine that metaphor with her, and to think about how we now have to choose which way to go: patch it together or make something new? Do we go back to what we’ve been, without repenting for what we’ve learned? Or, borrowing Kwon’s and Thompson’s framework (seeing, owning, and repairing) and Douglas’s dual legacies (terrorizing/oppressing and empowering/liberating) do we figure out how to repair without just remaking the old structures that haven’t always been empowering and liberating? Spellers, like Kwon and Thompson, present examples and frameworks for thinking about how to move forward towards justice and beloved community.

The last book I read for the class is about another way to participate in the empowering and liberating work of faith: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor by Liz Theoharris, co-founder of the current Poor People’s Campaign and longtime campaigner for justice with poor, unhoused, and low wealth people. I say campaigner with and not for, because the hallmark of Theoharris’s work and this book is that poverty does not preclude people from thinking, feeling, and acting on their own behalves. If you follow the Poor People’s Campaign at all you know that it is a coalition of people who are poor and their allies, exposing the structural inequities and the social mores that have created the false narrative that poverty is somehow poor people’s fault. Theoharris explains that but also really delves deeply into the famous biblical passage where Jesus says “the poor will always be with you” — which happens right after the woman with the alabaster jar anoints him with costly ointment and a man among his disciples scolds her, saying the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Through scriptural reflection and analysis, Theoharris explains how this passage has been distorted to defend economic inequality. She argues that in fact, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy in noting that if people didn’t follow God’s call for justice, poverty would continue to exist. Again, this was eye opening and fascinating, and I am still digesting it.

My leisure reading also connects to the ideas in the course reading, especially that human beings (particularly those with power) have a tendency to interpret their way into defending viewpoints that harm others. I read Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens, a smart, thought provoking look at the many ways America does not afford the same freedoms and privileges to all citizens — only people who look “white,” speak unaccented English and dress in a way that does not reveal cultural difference can “pass” as American all the time, and anyone who doesn’t fit these conditions is likely to find themself having to defend their citizenship or face bias and inequity at some point. Lalami also examines sexism in a searing and personal chapter on the condition of women both in America and in Morocco, where she grew up. I found the book sobering, but also strangely hopeful. Lalami’s final chapter is “Do Not Despair of this Country,” taken from Frederick Douglass’s speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Lalami describes what unconditional citizenship for all would entail, and explains how we get there.

She cautions that despair “is a gift to the status quo” and that therefore, we have to do what we can and remain hopeful. She suggests informing ourselves, voting, and looking to “the people who do the unglamorous labor, day after day, of confronting inequality and exclusion at a local level.” And she leaves readers with this important last thought: “In any discussion of change, there comes a time to choose partners. In the last few years, many opinion writers have urged dialogue and compromise. Only by talking about differences of opinion, the argument goes, can we hope to reach resolution. Certainly, there are disagreements that can be resolved through debate: the size of the transportation budget, say, or the allocation to Job Corps training programs. But some disagreements are not bridgeable. Separating asylum-seeking children from their parents, for example, is not an issue on which I see a possible compromise.” I appreciate this point; I think there have to be certain things that are not negotiable, and among those are human rights. She also goes on to point out that we also have to remember the partners who are not right in front of us — people in other countries who are also affected by our dialogues and decisions. Lalami’s insightful writing should inspire people to hope, and to take part, in some small way, to being and allowing others to be equitable citizens. Or what Dean Douglas calls, bringing about God’s just future.

I also finally read The Book Thief which I’ve had on my to-read pile for several months. During the pandemic, my dad re-read it and send me a copy. It’s certainly also about the way humans will interpret their way into defending harmful beliefs and practices. Markus Zusak‘s famous novel is about a young German girl whose brother dies as they are on their way to live with a foster family. Liesel’s new father realizes she can’t read and helps her learn how, and she has a new best friend next door, Rudy. Life gets more complicated as the war begins and in addition to having to deal with “the Party” which her father is reluctant to join, being hungry, and having to go to Hitler Youth activities, where Rudy is regularly bullied, Liesel soon has to keep secret that her family is hiding a young Jewish man, Max, in their basement. The novel is uniquely narrated by death, who cobbles together different perspectives, muses on the difficulty of his work, and shares snippets of thoughts and even pages of a book that Max creates for Liesel. It’s a story about people who manage not to despair and who try to do their part for justice even if that means giving up some of their own meager comfort to help others. And it’s a beautiful tribute to books and reading and writing, and their power to lift us out of even the darkest moments.

Another vacation read for me was Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Our elder offspring gave me this for Christmas, and I had been waiting for a chunk of time when I could dig into such a meaty read.The Computer Scientist said “Do you know how many times you’ve looked up from that book and exclaimed, ‘Did you know . . .’?” It’s an eye opening read for anyone who grew up schooled in the white dominant American culture that taught exactly what the 1619 project counters: a national history centered in white experience. I went through public schools, got a “good” liberal arts undergraduate education in college, and have attained two masters degrees. And yet, what I’ve learned about Black history (and what little I know about Asian history, and Native American history) I have had to learn on my own. Even then, when I first began to learn, I still had to wrap my head around all that I didn’t (and still don’t) know or understand, all that I’ve been socialized to believe or accept. Stamped From the Beginning continued that education for me. Even as someone who has been trying to understand systemic racism it is mind blowing.

So many little things we take for granted as positive if we are white — like scientific research into genetics — can be, have been, and are being used for racist means, like “proving” that intelligence is determined by genes (it’s not). Even the stories I already knew seem shockingly fresh when Kendi brings them into this lengthy overall story. For example, the racist implications of certain policies (like standardized testing) and the manufacture of false and illogical narratives about drugs (marijuana was not considered dangerous even by substance abuse specialists until Reagan pronounced it dangerous, more government money has been spent on the “war on drugs” and stricter sentencing laws on drug possession than on deadly drunk driving). Kendi doesn’t limit himself to government policy in this book; social, economic, and cultural racism is also laid bare: disdain for and/or appropriation of Black culture, double standards or dominant cultural standards in dress, behavior, and language in schools and workplaces, false narratives and claims made with no evidence about affirmative action, Black parents, city life, and welfare. Anyway, I learned a great deal, and as with the reading for the course I’m taking, I am still digesting it all.

A small but very powerful book I also read last week is How Can I Live Peacefully With Justice?: a Little Book of Guidance by Mike Angell. Angell is rector at a church in St. Louis, and wrote the book after living in that community these past few years; he moved there just a few months before Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson in August 2014. He frames his discussion of peace and what it is and how we can live peacefully in terms of what he has learned by living in St. Louis and also through his longtime partnership with a human rights organization in El Salvador, but his guidance absolutely applies to all of us, wherever we live. Angell notes, “Living with peace means being willing to become uncomfortably vulnerable, and working for justice requires building unlikely relationships of trust.” He goes on to provide a brief but clear theological explanation of the relationship between peace and justice (which protestors even more clearly elucidate: “No justice, no peace”). And he tells us his own story — because one other aspect of living peacefully that he explains is that “We all, all of us, need to work to reconcile our own sense of self, our own identity, if we are ever to be able to reconcile with others. Peace only exists in relationship.” Angell gently guides readers through what that might look like, by being vulnerable himself. One important message he shares is that peace and justice, like everything related to bringing the world closer to God’s just future, is complicated, takes practice, and requires us to engage with questions that may not have answers.

On a much lighter note, I listened to the audiobook version of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, after a friend recommended it when I recounted clearing out some closets and shelves for my mother to make her house more manageable recently. The idea is pretty straightforward — clear out your stuff now, so you can live better in your old age and so that your family won’t have to do it after you die. The book is somewhat instructional with dashes of memoir as Magnusson recalls memories evoked by her own death cleaning. It was enjoyable.

And on the last evening of our week’s vacation at a little cottage by a small lake here in NH, I read a book that was on the bookshelf there: The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett, a mystery featuring a ninety year old sleuth, Queen Elizabeth II. My offspring gave me a ribbing last night for reading all this stuff about equity and justice and then indulging in a mystery featuring the ultimate symbol of wealth and empire. While the Queen solves the mystery, she relies on her Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, a British Nigerian army officer, for help. Rozie learns that she is the latest in a long line of women who have helped Her Majesty solve crimes for decades. Okay, I get it, the Commonwealth is a vestige of colonialism. Seen another way (or am I interpreting away harm? I’m not sure) it is empire cracked open, an organization rebuilt in a post colonial world to acknowledge the relationality required for countries to collaborate globally. Anyway, while I do understand the controversies of monarchy I find the Queen interesting and this book made me laugh out loud (disturbing the Computer Scientist, who was trying to take notes on Always With Us? at the time) and I found it entertaining and enjoyable.

I promise not to go so long between posts or to mention so many books at once next time.

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First, I am almost always reading a book related to spiritual formation, and I usually don’t review them here. I guess because I feel spiritual formation is personal, and what I read may not be what other readers need or want, but also because some of what I read may be of limited interest, like a book about the history of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC) or about the Nicene Creed. If I think the book might be of wider interest (like I Told My Soul to Sing, which I recently reviewed) then I make an exception to this.

During Holy Week (for my non-Christian readers, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday) this year I read Jesus: the Human Face of God by Jay Parini which I actually got at an SCHC chapter meeting, on a table of books someone was giving away. It’s a short book and I think it would be interesting to people curious about Jesus of Nazareth as a historical figure as well as to Christians. Parini lets readers know where he stands right in the first sentence of the preface: “This is biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time.”

Parini is a believer and also an academic and a creative writer. He draws on scripture and centuries of scholarship but also notes that “considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas comes from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.” He contextualizes Jesus’s life as a devout Jewish man in ancient Palestine and as the Christ of the gospels (and Parini doesn’t limit himself to the canonical gospels). He takes us through the chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, using both scripture and history to shed light on the well known events and to remind readers that for Parini and many others, “the historicity of his life is less important that the meaning of the story itself.”

At the end of the book, Parini takes us on a tour of Jesus scholarship, through the many attempts to determine the veracity of Bible translations, archaeological evidence, and theological soundness. I got the sense he is somewhat amused by these attempts to put God in a box, so to speak. Parini is an Episcopalian (although he notes he grew up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister), and for me, his work is very Anglican, in that he acknowledges the importance of the “three legged stool” (Richard Hooker‘s contention that scripture, tradition and reason inform our faith).

I love Parini’s sense that Jesus “came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways” and that Jesus’s teaching has “visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways.” And I also love his gentle but very sensible reminder that it is unsurprising that it’s hard to wrap our heads around the transformative message of Jesus, and the idea that God came into the world in Jesus “bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.” Parini says this is “difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence” — and that’s ok.

Because Parini notes Jesus didn’t ask us to get it. He asked very little. Love one another. Follow him. Remember him together around a simple meal of bread and wine. And, “Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart — metanoia — a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an invitation to everyone — to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. The kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.”

Parini says at the outset he’s written a biography, and like any good biographer he helps readers know the subject but also know why the subject matters. For Parini, it matters because of what he coins “the gradually realizing kingdom of God — a process of transformation, like that of an underdeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.” A beautiful, illuminating book, even for someone who thinks they already know the story of Jesus.

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A few years back I read The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It’s a delightful combination of history and memoir, a record of journeys (physical and imagined) and a story of connections to family, to aesthetics, and to meaning. It’s the kind of book that leaves the reader feeling better educated and better acquainted with a bright mind. The White Road: a Journey Into Obsession is similar in that regard.

In a way The White Road is the story of porcelain. DeWaal travels to different places important to that history. The story begins with Jingdezhen, China, where pottery was made for centuries in large quantities and de Waal finds ancient shards and both ancient and contemporary stories and objects. He also visits Dresden, and traces the story of Augustus, who visited Versailles as a teenager and saw a porcelain pavilion and became obsessed with porcelain once he became king. De Waal presents the mathematician, Tschirnhaus, and the young alchemist, Böttger, who together reinvented porcelain for Augustus, the famous Meissen porcelain. He tells the story of English porcelain, of the Quaker apothecary William Cookworthy who determined — by reading and by quietly talking with people all over the southwest of England where he lived and worked, much as I picture de Waal doing on his journeys — that the types of clay and rock needed to create porcelain were in the nearby soil. He traveled to South Carolina to the mountains where the English took similar clay from the ground in Cherokee lands around the time America gained its independence. And to Dachau, where prisoners were forced to create Nazi porcelain.

Throughout the book, de Waal muses on his own history as an artist and his own relationship with porcelain as well. He also reveals his process, how ideas intersect and connections form. When he visits Dresden he makes an appointment to visit inside the Japanisches Palais, which Augustus built “in his porcelain madness,” and de Waal notes, “It has taken me over twenty years to get here to the palais. I had an ink sketch of one of these rooms pinned up above my wheel for a very long time. It was a challenge. Did I want to make porcelain that could be shuffled around, or could I make more of a demand on the world, shape a portion of it with more coherence?” And he tells the story of a porcelain room he created for an exhibition. These glimpses into his artistic process are found throughout The White Road.

He also shares that he often orders books, even expensive rare ones, when he’s unable to sleep: “Buying a book is my default holding position.” And his affection and empathy for these historical people he gets to know — for Tschirnhaus, Cookworthy, and Hans Landauer, a Dachau prisoner who wrote a memoir about working in the Allach porcelain factory — are palpable. I admire that he doesn’t just read history and report it, but feels it as well. I also like the way he chases connections. Towards the end of the book as he reviews where he’s been and what he’s covered he wonders about visiting Wittgenstein’s house because “Wittgenstein wrote a response to Goethe’s response to Newton on colour.”

He notes, “There are books in my room upstairs at the studio still in their packages, bought at night, necessary for all my journeys. I have the score of John Cage’s 4′ 33″ on top of the pile. I run my hands over this ridiculous heap of possibilities, of weeks of detours and re-routings.” After explaining where he thought he’d go with this book, and wondering “What have I missed?” he adds, “I’ve given up on my lists. My three white porcelain cups have become five objects of porcelain. My three white hills have become four. I’ve been taken elsewhere.”

And that is why I admire de Waal — he takes us elsewhere with him, allowing the connections to develop and sharing the process with us. This was a delightful read. I enjoyed it most when I sat with it for longer stretches rather than reading a couple of pages before sleep. Treat yourself joining de Waal as he immerses himself in his subject.

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I’ve been reading Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans for a couple of weeks, partly because the Computer Scientist and I watched both seasons of The Mandalorian during that time, so it took me longer to read because I spent time watching TV. This book is another selection of the science librarians’ group that picked Why Fish Don’t Exist in the fall. The books have a similar style, in that both sound a little bit like something you’d hear on a podcast or public radio program. To some extent, both trace an author’s journey through a topic, although Broad Band focuses more clearly on the journey than the author.

In Evans’ case, the journey traces the lineage of women in computing, and more specifically, in the development of the internet. She begins well before the internet as we know it today, retelling some stories you may already know, like the contributions of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, for instance. I had a vague conception of women as human “computers,” and their important contributions to code breaking and other war work and the to the space program, from watching things like the film Hidden Figures and visiting Bletchley. Evans really makes it plain: as we transitioned from human computers to machines, women created programming, and were not only instrumental but dominant in the earliest days of computer science.

And then they weren’t. Evans elucidates that and then pulls lesser known stories out of the past, about the women in every decade who contributed to everything from mainframe computing to early networked information systems to gaming to online publishing to the DotCom era. It’s interesting, and there are many things to admire, like Stacy Horn’s creating and nurturing Echo, the NYC area cybercommunity that predated social media by decades and did it better. Or Jake Feinler and her team making the early internet orderly in ways that are still with us.

I was especially impressed with Wendy Hall, who pioneered hypertext linkbases, and then when the much more simplistic and seemingly pointless world wide web dominated the internet, adapted. And Cathy Marshall, whose product, NoteCards, still seems like a far more elegant solution to sharing ideas than “falling down the internet.”

Evans clearly admires her subjects, too. She describes talking with Marshall about her system for organizing her ideas for writing. Marshall tells her that she throws out what she doesn’t like, because “I don’t think you lose what you’ve written. It’s still in your head. Over time what you’re doing is changing what’s in your mind — what’s on paper is just incidental.” Evans writes, “She makes this comment offhand, but the insight knocks me out. That’s what software is, I realize: a system for changing your mind.”

The journey from woman to woman is fascinating, especially as she reaches the point where she’s interviewing people. However, I’m still processing the ending. In the span of a few paragraphs Evans supports two seemingly opposed ideas:

First, “As the Web commercialized, it became clear that the Internet was not going to liberate anyone from sexism, or for that matter from divisions of class, race, ability, and age. Instead, it often perpetuated the same patterns and dynamics of the meatspace world.” If that isn’t a firm enough stake in the ground, she goes on to say that “as digital and real life edge into near-complete overlap, the digital world inherits the problems of the real,” and notes the negative impacts ( like the proliferation of lies, social media’s impact on how we feel we should look and live, etc.) But then, she pivots. I can’t quite see how she leaps to: “When we create technologies, we don’t just mirror the world. We actually make it. And we can remake it . . . .”

Yes, she briefly outlines that learning from the past and the women who made their way despite the world’s challenges can help us see a better way. But I’m pretty stumped about how we can remake technology’s embodiment of our worst impulses without doing something about the real world first. An interesting read, but I think the ending is really the beginning of another book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I saw a review of The Imperfects, Amy Meyerson‘s second novel sometime since I’ve been working at home and put it on my library eBook holds list. It came up in my account over the weekend, and proved a good summer read (or Coronavirus and bad news all around read). It’s absorbing in the way I hear coworkers talk about certain streaming or TV series about dysfunctional families, because Meyerson’s characters, the Millers, can’t seem to be in the same room without getting into an argument.

But that, in and of itself, would not for me be very entertaining. Fortunately, there is a page-turning mystery at the center of this feuding family. Helen, the matriarch, has died and in her will, she surprises everyone by leaving her house to her daughter, Deborah, a somewhat flaky new-agey grandma who has failed at three dozen business ideas, can’t keep to her vegan diet, and seems to have had a string of equally flaky boyfriends. Helen also surprises them by leaving a brooch to Deborah’s daughter Beck.

The rest of the book is the breathless story of Beck’s realization that the brooch is not only a valuable heirloom, but also includes a diamond that was probably part of the Habsburg crown jewels, lost since the earlier 1900s. Having no idea why on earth her grandma had such a thing in her possession, she gets to work trying to determine its provenance and how it came to be Helen’s. And to determine how to stave off the many legal claims to the diamond once news breaks.

Because the siblings can’t keep their mouths shut. Beck’s brother Jake, a screenwriter whose one hit capitalized on his family’s dysfunction and caused a major rift, spills the story to his stoner friend as soon as he gets back to California. Worse, her sister Ashley, a Greenwhich housewife and former marketing executive, takes a valuation report to an auction house. And some of the people Beck trusts to help the family are less than helpful.

Helen’s story, and the story of the jewels she came to own drive the book. There is some interesting backstory about the end of the Habsburg empire, and then later, an effort to get fifty Jewish children out of Austria before the Nazis ship most of the adults off to concentration camps. Which Meyerson says in her author’s note is based on a real story of a Philadelphia couple who really rescued fifty children. That was all interesting.

Less interesting, to me, were some romantic (or at least lustful) side plots for each of the Miller family, which I think are included to round them out as characters, so they don’t just look like bickering siblings. I could imagine my grandmother suggesting these interludes were not needed, which is why I gave it some thought and tried to imagine why Meyerson included them. There are also some other non-romantic partner minor characters who play small but key roles, like Karen, the kind and honest HR person at Beck’s firm, Rico, the solid stoner friend, and Clara, a librarian who takes an interest in helping Ashley.

If you’re looking for a distraction, this book has mystery, history, and family histrionics. I read it in an afternoon and evening (and admittedly, late into the night to finish, because I wanted to know how it would end.

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Yes, this seems like something completely different. I’m a discerner in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, and this novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, is on the reading list. It was Salley Vickers‘ debut, and tells two stories: one about Julia Garnet, a retired schoolteacher whose longtime friend and housemate, Harriet, has recently died, and the other, the Book of Tobit. Tobit is found in Catholic and Orthodox bibles, and in the Apocrypha in Anglican bibles, as well as in the Septuagint, which is the oldest translation (into Greek) of the Hebrew scriptures.

Julia decides to sublet her apartment and spend a few months in Venice. She is a British communist (like Vickers’ parents) with few friends and no living relatives. As her story unfolds, she comes out of her longtime shell and in a process of self-examination, socializing purely for enjoyment (rather than school functions or party meetings), and immersion in the art and music of Venice, she softens. And regrets the strictness that prevented her from being as kind as should could or should have been, and that has left her lonely.

One of the first things she sees in Venice is the facade of the Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, and carvings of the Archangel Raphael with a boy carrying a fish, and dog in front of them. You can see it here. She later visits the church to view the art inside (including a series of paintings featuring this boy and his dog and the angel), and learns that the boy is Tobias, son of Tobit. A friend she meets, Carlo, tells her the whole story of Tobit, a Jewish exile in Nineveh, and Tobias, who cures Tobit’s blindness and saves his betrothed from a demon, with the help of the Raphael and a dog.

Vickers interweaves a retelling of the Book of Tobit alongside Julia’s story, and adds to the narrative of her personal growth some small mysteries Julia works out, about a painting in another church (Chapel-of-the-Plague), and about the English twins she meets there who are doing restoration work, as well as a mystery about her friend Carlo. It’s not a cozy novel — Julia’s self-reflection is painful at times, and the mysteries she deals with are as well. There are references to the plague years in Venice, to anti-Semitism, and to WWII. It’s not a light read. The story of Tobit is also on the surface just somewhat fraught. There is also a somewhat abrupt and bittersweet ending.

But there is a deep vein of truth running through both, and Julia’s transformation is ultimately uplifting, as is the story of the boy who with an angel’s help, overcomes evil. Vickers’ research shines through and is fascinating, without being “in your face” — it’s woven neatly into the story because Julia has an affinity for learning more about the things she is seeing from books and from friends (including an elderly Monsignor who is, like all of the supporting characters, interesting).

And there is a longing for meaning, for faith in something beyond humanity, something that surpasses the imperfect execution of ideals that Julia realizes she’s observed in British communism. I think that makes Miss Garnet’s Angel a timely read, despite the somewhat quaint circumstances of Julia’s life. As we look at the not-so-solid — in some cases actually crumbling — edifices of our ideals as they crack open to reveal the long history of willful ignorance on the part of many people and outright greed on the part of the powerful, don’t we too long for meaning, and healing, and love?

I enjoyed this and I will look for Vickers’ other books.

 

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I first read Sarah Moss‘s memoir about living and teaching in Iceland, Names for the Sea, and then her novel Night Waking. I really like Moss’s writing, and admire the research and connections with history that go into her books as well as the recurring theme of gender roles. So when I saw she had a newish (I thought it was new, but it turns out it came out in the US in January 2019, and in 2018 in the UK) short novel set in the north of England, Ghost Wall, I got on the eBook waiting list at my library.

Ghost Wall has the characteristics I cited above. It’s really creepy and tense, however, which I didn’t realize, and which isn’t a) what I’m looking for these days — no more tension, please! nor b) my cup of tea, normally. Still, I stuck it out to the end, which is still pretty tense, but slightly hopeful. Kind of like real life.

The story centers around Silvie, a teenager in 1970s England whose dad is a self-taught prehistory buff (for reasons, Moss implies, that are not entirely academic, but possibly xenophobic). He’s also an opinionated bully who controls what Silvie and her mother do. Including accompanying him on a field trip with a college professor and a handful of his students to live as if they are in the Iron Age. They wear scratchy tunics, forage for nuts, berries, roots, and mushrooms, butcher rabbits, gather mussels, and cook what they hunt and gather in a cauldron over a fire. Silvie and her mother do, that is. The men make plans for further reenactment activities.

Silvie admires the only female student, Molly, and even possibly develops a crush on her. Molly is strong, educated, and comfortable stripping down to her lacy — and matching! — undergarments to go swimming. Silvie, repressed, afraid, without any idea of her future, is enchanted. Her father’s disapproval manifests itself in a belting, and from there, the plot centers around his and the professor’s darker reenactments, Silvie’s inability to extricate herself from their plans, and Molly’s interference.

In between, you may learn a thing or two about subsistence (which Moss does not romanticize a bit), bogs (which you don’t want to fall in), and the depressing idea that mankind has always been nationalist (or at least tribal) and pretty brutal (especially to women). It’s a gripping story, that would provide plenty for a book club to discuss and is a quick read. Just be ready for tension.

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“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”  That quote sums up for me the essence of W.E.B. Du Bois‘ The Souls of Black Folk, which my book club is reading. If men would just know men, “double consciousness” would not be a way of life for people of color — a way of living that splits people in two, the person they are and the person the racist world sees them as.

Du Bois wrote this book around the turn of the 20th century; Jim Crow was the law of the land, and the initial hope and promise of the Freedmen’s Bureau was a distant memory. Du Bois’ descriptions of life in south Georgia (the “black belt”) are haunting to me because we spent five years living just 45 minutes north of Albany in Americus, and the legacy of systemic inequity is still evident, or was within the last two decades when we were there. The places where each race attends their own churches, their own schools (although not officially, but in many parts of rural Georgia, including the town where we lived, many white families send their kids to private school and the percentages of black and white children in public school don’t come anywhere near matching those of the population at large), their own entertainment — still existed when my family lived there in the early 2000s.

I was also struck by the chapters on individuals’ struggles to live as their true selves — Of Alexander Crummell and Of the Coming of John — which are especially powerful positioned after essays on reconstruction, the economy of share crop cotton farming, education, etc. I struggled, if I’m honest, to get through some of the history and sociology; important as it is to understand, it’s dense and difficult. Anytime I read about reconstruction I wonder what would have happened if Lincoln lived?

As I’ve thought many times recently when trying to read a more diverse history of the U.S. than what I was taught, it’s appalling that public schools don’t fully teach American history. There is so much I am only learning in more depth as an adult that was glossed over in a few sentences in my childhood history books. Someone I know told me recently that every so often he looks at 5th grade social studies books and checks to see if Martin Luther King is mentioned in a sidebar — rather than having his own chapter.

King, at least, is a household name. What about Alexander Crummell, who I’d never heard of until reading The Souls of Black Folk, or A. Philip Randolph, a man who is among the most important labor and civil rights pioneers in this country but I’ll bet many of you have never heard of (I only learned about him at a free breakfast about using online sources for historical research at the ACRL conference)?

It’s never too late to add “narrative plentitude” to one’s understanding so I’m going to keep learning about privilege and its lack.

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