Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘humanity’

I finished KooKooLand by Gloria Norris this afternoon, feeling like I just wanted to get it over with. One Book One Manchester has made KooKooLand our 2019 selection. It’s a good book, and the voice and writing are powerful. But it’s not the kind of book I usually seek out (although a quick perusal of my last several reads might cause you to question that — I seem to be on a literary tour of the worst of human nature lately) and for me finishing it quickly was like ripping off a bandaid — I wanted to get on with it so it wouldn’t hurt so much. That said, Norris writes about hard things with incredible empathy, never veering into sensation or trope. The humanity with which she portrays nearly every person in this hard story is truly admirable. And this book is about surviving about the most dysfunctional upbringing imaginable and becoming your best self anyway.

KooKooLand is Norris’s memoir of growing up in Manchester, daughter of Jimmy and Shirley. They were friends with the Piasecny family, whose patriarch, Hank, murdered his ex-wife and whose daughter, Susan, in turn murdered him years later. Norris got to know Susan again as an adult, and shares the story of this woman who successfully sued New Hampshire to force the state to build a women’s prison, and who struggled with the legacy of abuse and mental illness in her family until her final years.

One reason Norris is drawn to Susan is that she knows “That could have been me.” Jimmy is nearly as violent as Hank, and in fact threatened to kill Shirley and his daughters pretty regularly. He breaks laws regularly, and involves the rest of the family. When Norris was a child, Susan was someone she looked up to who seemed to have everything ahead of her. Once they reconnect when Norris is an adult, she realized Susan “had already given me everything I needed years ago — a road map for my life. Just because she didn’t follow the map herself didn’t make it any less valuable.”

Norris writes this graciously, as I said, about just about everyone in this story. She seems like a remarkably open-hearted and generous person. Which kept me reading. It’s a moving story. At the end she thanks her immediate family members who all supported her writing this book. Norris must be one incredible human to gain their trust to write so openly  and honestly about their lives. I can’t wait to meet her next fall!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

When the Nobel prize in literature was announced this year I thought to myself, “there’s an author I always intended to read.” For no good reason, I started with Never Let Me Go rather than Ishiguro’s most recent novel. It’s a lovely book, full of the emotional force Ishiguro’s writing is known for, and like all really good fiction, it’s about being human. Which is ironic, since Never Let Me Go is about people who aren’t considered fully human.

The three main characters, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, grew up together at a boarding school in England called Hailsham. As the novel opens, Kathy, now an adult, is reminiscing about their childhood, the “guardians” who ran the school, and the experiences they had after leaving Hailsham to begin their adult lives. Kathy works as a carer, and ends up caring for both Ruth and Tommy. Slowly readers begin to understand who and what the three characters are, why there is no mention of their families, and what their purpose in life is.

I know I’m being vague but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprising truth for you if you haven’t read it. Suffice to say that Ishiguro writes of a time and place that could be in the past or the present or the future, of people who live in England but could be living anywhere, with the same concerns and interests of people everywhere. This is not accidental, as he has stated, “I am a writer who wishes to write international novels. What is an ‘international’ novel? I believe it to be one, quite simply, that contains a vision of life that is of importance to people of varied backgrounds around the world.”

It’s this universality that I found most interesting as I read what could be considered a dystopian novel. There is nothing strange about this world Ishiguro creates — it is all too familiar. The emotions his characters feel are things we’ve felt too. And yet Never Let Me Go deals with a society that has decided collectively to use certain people for the benefit of others in a chilling and inhumane way.

Which makes it sound like horror or science fiction, which it isn’t. Just as it is unreal and yet ordinary and recognizable, it is scary without being creepy. Evocative, yes, maudlin, no. Hard to describe? Yes. A very good read, thoughtful and thought provoking. It made me want to discuss it with someone.

Read Full Post »

A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single ManShe said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.

I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.

George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”

To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.

If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.

But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.

What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.

 

Read Full Post »

As I explained in my earlier post, it’s not back to school time in the bookconscious household, but we are learning all the time. In fact, witnessing and supporting my children’s autonomous educations has reawakened the life learner in me, and helped both Steve and I recall that magical feeling of discovery we all felt in childhood when we learned something we really wanted to know, something interesting, maybe even mind boggling.

My own mind has been boggled as I have studied the issues surrounding a book I’ve blogged about before, because after months of planning, we kicked off Concord Reads 2008 with a book talk Monday night at the library, where we discussed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I am leading the brown bag book discussion of the same title at the library on Thursday, and I plan to play the devil’s advocate and challenge readers to discuss whether Kingsolver’s activist viewpoint causes her to oversimplify the “locavore” argument about food’s carbon footprint. And, whether the surging local food movement is really making a positive environmental impact. As a scientist (Kingsolver studied biology) shouldn’t she have made the scientific data on food miles clearer?

I have no doubt about her other arguments: that supporting local farmers and food producers builds community, helps consumers to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced, improves food security, increases nutrition (less travel and storage time means less deterioration), is healthier for farm workers (big agriculture isn’t known for its good working conditions), and even tastes better — anyone who has had just picked tomatoes from a garden or farm stand knows that. I think being informed is always better than the alternative, and knowing more about how food is raised might protect consumers from food borne illness, exposure to pesticides, or even just loss of knowledge about food traditions and regional growing seasons.

After all, when modern systems break down, as in World Made By Hand, having friends with dairy cows and chickens or knowing when to plant beans and whether your local climate is more favorable for corn or wheat may be essential to our survival! But I think in her sincere concern for the environment, Kingsolver does readers a disservice by glossing over the complexity of weighing the environmental cost of food choices. As I reread parts of the book to prepare for the discussion, I found the tone less nurturing and more didactic than I remembered.

Sure, Kingsolver says it’s ok to make exceptions and choose a few foods you can’t live without. But it had better not be bananas, which she writes about quite firmly as a bad food choice, environmentally speaking. Readers get the impression it is somehow virtuous to give up bananas. But as local writer Hillary Nelson, a panelist at an upcoming Concord Reads event, points out, not all bananas are bad for the earth, and there are even more complex ethical concerns involved. Like nearly everything else in our complicated world, measuring the environmental impact of food isn’t simple and may not be a matter of clear choices, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle occasionally strays a little too much into a black and white tone on a technicolor issue.

It’s an intriguing problem, because although Kingsolver by no means started the local food movement, she has given it enormous publicity, and like any movement, some people are jumping on the bandwagon without considering all the angles. The Greatest Story Ever Sold focuses on political journalism, but the behemoth media system that provides Americans with information manages to consume all kinds of stories, including environmental news, and spit them back out at us as dumbed down soundbites. Most of what I’ve read about local eating in the past few months has been that kind of simplified summary, cheering for a wholesome trend. But not all.

As bookconscious fans may remember, not long after I finished the book last summer, I read a New York Times op-ed challenging some of Kingsolver’s assertions about the environmental impact of local eating. Some recent scientific studies have confirmed what Frances Moore Lappe wrote almost 40 years ago in Diet for a Small Planet: meat consumption has a far worse impact on the environment, health, and world hunger than any other food choice. Articles in Salon, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Environmental Science and Technology and its accompanying website are delving into the issue of food miles. I’m heartened that the broader picture is available and that some retailers are actually responding to consumer demand and trying to make information available so buyers can make more informed choices.

Nelson, in her column on bananas, also brings up social and ethical questions, and some readers raised similar concerns last night at the book discussion. Is this a movement that leaves out the poor? Is the environmental impact of locavores traipsing around the countryside in their cars individually tracking down fresh produce worse than that of produce trucked to a central distribution point? Do we have an ethical responsibility to support developing world farmers who feed our year-round fruit cravings? Is fair trade food shipped from far away less harmful to the planet than greenhouse grown equivalents grown nearby or food harvested across the country by migrant farmworkers who aren’t paid a living wage?

Will the energy behind the local food movement make a difference as it is channeled towards lobbying industrial agriculture to take steps to be more environmentally and socially caring? Can we even do that, or is a profit based food system beyond caring? Do we really have accurate ways to figure out the carbon footprints of our choices? Should we even be wasting our time on all of these small things when no less a source than Al Gore tells us it’s way past time for individual action, we need massive, government level changes if we want to reverse the impact of greenhouse gas emissions?

Despite my quibbles, I still felt upon rereading it that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a good read and an important book. Kingsolver is a great storyteller, and her writing is excellent. She has certainly caused more people to think about food and where it comes from. I appreciate the way she exposes government involvement in the industrialization of agriculture and food production and the subsidizing of high fructose corn syrup — which, despite the claims of an appallingly duplicitous advertising campaign coming to a tv near you is not only almost impossible to avoid (it’s in everything from yogurt to bread to cereal as well as the more obvious things like sweets and sodas) but also nutritionally bankrupt. And she encourages further inquiry, listing resources and suggesting ways to become more immersed in the issues and to make changes or take action.

However, all of this confusion makes me want to seek relief in another novel. The one I’ve started isn’t promising to be much comfort: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. I’m reading it for the Gibson’s book discussion group; I’ve passed on it up to now. It was certainly widely acclaimed, touted as a best book of 2006 by the New York Times, etc. But reading about self-absorbed not very successful thirty somethings in the context of 9/11 may not be what I’m up for at the moment, even though at least one of the characters has me very curious about what he’ll do next. I’m only a few chapters in though, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Besides, it’s bound to be better than campaign sound bites.

However, I’m also keeping two nonfiction books close at hand to peruse when both the fictional world and the real one overwhelm. Perhaps I was moved by the stories of strong women in history my daughter and I listened to in the car last week, because both are about women who are “firsts” in their field. Annie Griffiths Belt, (who it turns out is a friend of Barbara Kingsolver and also uses her photography to promote the work of Habitat for Humanity, where Steve worked for five years, providing this month’s moment of bookconscious interconnectedness) one of the first female photographers at National Geographic, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (or any other church in the Anglican Communion), have both written inspiring books.

A Camera, Two Kids, and A Camel is Belt’s photo memoir, describing her life and work and in particular her travel with her kids, who she brought along on assignment all over the world when they were growing up. Besides the gorgeous photos that, like National Geographic, illuminate cultures and places in ways mere words cannot, Belt’s story is interesting and entertaining. She showed her children the good in the world, and shares that with us in her book.

A Wing and a Prayer: Messages of Faith and Hope is the Presiding Bishop’s collection of homilies, released in part to introduce her to the world after her election. It’s not really about her, though you get some glimpses of her life (she is a pilot and was an oceanographer before she became a priest). Instead this collection is just what the subtitle says — encouragement and reassurance that love, understanding, justice, and faith do have a place in the world if we let them into our lives. Schori is coming to the Diocese of NH in a few weeks, and I hope to hear her in person.

These last two books remind me that come what may, people will generally work to be their best selves when given the chance. All of the books I’ve read lately touch on that idea of our basic humanity seeking the humanity in others, however messy that process may be. People go on caring about each other, seeking relationships, expressing themselves, trying to make the world better for their kids, and always, always, finding ways to tell their stories. For that, I am grateful.

Read Full Post »