Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Ok, so it didn’t snow today, or last Friday, but it snowed Saturday-Monday and I read three more books.

One book bingo square I filled is “A book from one of the library’s new shelves.” I chose Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It’s as much the story of his remarkable mother as it is his story. Noah explains apartheid and the post-apartheid years in Johannesburg and describes his childhood and adolescence, as well as his family history. As the child of his unconventional mother and father — a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man, Noah is considered colored, or mixed race, in South Africa, and his very existence was illegal. Growing up his black relatives and their neighbors considered him white; he thought of himself as black.

Noah has a conversational style and as you might expect, a gift for finding humor even in extreme hardship. And it’s clear that despite repeatedly describing beatings he received from her, Noah’s mother is the reason he survived his childhood. In one story he explains that she frequently told him things a child perhaps should not hear, but she had her reasons: “My mom told me these things so I would never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past,’ she would say, ‘but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.’ And she never was.”

For my “book whose title that begins with W,” my second born suggested Why We Broke Up. I got it at the library book sale at one point, because we both love Maira Kalman and they loved Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket — A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of the first series they read without me reading it aloud. Why We Broke Up is is the story of Min, a teenager who is writing to her two-timing jock ex-boyfriend, Ed. She’s explaining what’s in a box of stuff she’s going to leave on his porch as soon as she’s done writing the letter. Her best friend, Al, is driving her to take the box of stuff back. I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure the second born would — they’d probably want to know what in the hell Min saw in Ed (ok, lust, popularity). I couldn’t decide if Ed is a serial shit, a victim of his own popularity and co-captain privilege, a product of the patriarchy, or unreliable because of his own troubled childhood. Min is awesome, except that she’s dim about Al, who is superior to Ed in every way. Al is awesome, and at first I thought kind of unbelievable but then I realized no, there are kids who are kind of mature beyond their years. A little painful to read for someone who made her share of dumb decisions about which boys to spend time in high school, but I like the way it’s told, and I LOVE the illustrations.

Finally I read “A book with a red cover,” one that I’ve owned for years but had only flipped through: A Journey Into the Transcendentalists’ New England by R. Todd Felton. I bought this in Concord, MA, when we went on a family day trip after reading about — and some works by some of Concord’s famous residents, particularly Thoreau. I’ve been reading and thinking a good bit about 19th century Boston, especially because the Computer Scientist and I have spent more time there this year. This book is an introductory guide to the places and people who were important to the Transcendentalist movement. It’s full of photos and maps, but no visitor information, so it’s more a guide in the sense of giving an overview than a tourist guide. It made me curious about The Boston Atheneum – a private library, still in existence today. And it made me aware of some of the history of places I’ve already been — I didn’t know The Atlantic Monthly was founded by a group called the Saturday Club, which met at The Omni Parker House.  Nor did I know that the building attached to the Brattle Book Shop on West Street, now occupied by a restaurant called Papagayo, was once Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, where Margaret Fuller and Peabody held “conversations” for thinking women and so many of the great writers and thinkers of the day came to talk and buy books.

I love history and reading this, as well as a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner that I’m about halfway through, makes me want to go through my shelves for more Boston history. I could read something in that vein for the “A biography or memoir” square, since the Gardner book would fit the “book about art or artists” square (she collected art, befriended artists, and founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this evening, I’m after “A book with a number in the title.”

And, there is snow in the forecast.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.

 

Read Full Post »

I finished The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago and have been avoiding writing about it. I think the author is passionate about her topic. It’s interesting. There is a whole group of girls who are dressed as boys in order to uphold their families’ honor and provide them with someone who can run errands, escort the girls and women to school and shopping, etc. When Jenny Nordberg found out about these “bacha posh” she was intrigued and began a quest to find and record the stories of current or former bacha posh.

Nordberg makes some very important points about international efforts in Afghanistan. By focusing so much on the rights of girls and women, westerners have fed the notion that gender equality is “against men.” Nordberg posits that by focusing so much on women in a place where many men cannot find work to support their families, NGOs and foreign powers have further entrenched the patriarchy. And that in a society where men literally control every move women make, “Men are the key to infiltrating and subverting patriarchy.”

Sensible, right? The stories are wrenching, but how wonderful that someone told them, right? The issues the books raises about gender roles and gender identity deserve wide attention and are really vital issues in our world. But for some reason, I just did not love this book, and I can’t really explain why. I usually enjoy books about hard topics, or books that challenge accepted wisdom, or examine the status quo in new ways. I think both the subject and the writing in The Underground Girls of Kabul are compelling.

I leave you with this mystery, dear readers. For unexplained reasons, I just didn’t like this perfectly deserving book. It’s different than a full on reading funk, where no book appeals, because I’ve started a couple of other titles since this one and am liking them well enough. Anyone else experience this lately?

 

Read Full Post »

I’m off this week, and I am enjoying extra reading time. First, I finished a book the former “Teen the Elder” (longtime bookconscious readers may be surprised to learn he is now in his twenties; take the links to see what he’s up to now) recommended, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. An extended version of a piece Junger wrote for Vanity Fair, this book explores the ways in which human nature is best suited to tribal life. In other words, life in a close knit community where members are committed to looking after each other’s basic needs — food and safety. It’s an interesting book.

Junger isn’t the first to argue that the deep malaise of modern life is caused by the lack of opportunity for most people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. His focus is on the way warfare and disasters bring people together and reduce crime, mental illness, and even suicide in the immediate aftermath.  He also argues that PTSD, which is diagnosed (as well as misdiagnosed) at higher rates in the US than anywhere else, is not necessarily  caused by trauma, but re-entry into society.

“Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy.” A few pages on, Junger continues, ” A modern soldier returning from combat . . . goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society — and they’re nearly miraculous — the individualizes lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

I couldn’t help but think of something I read recently about pharmaceutical companies pathologizing normal if unpleasant aspects of human existence in order to profit from “curing” them with prescriptions. Junger found that we treat the response to trauma or violence that way too, which “creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” I don’t think people should just “get over it” and neither does Junger, but I wonder if by making a lot of things our ancestors treated as unfortunate but natural parts of life as maladies that need treatment, we are possibly making things worse?

Junger doesn’t really have a solution in mind; he points out that the current conflict between liberal and conservative views on poverty and social well being in the U.S. are actually not at odds according to our evolutionary instincts (abhorrence of freeloaders who were a threat to overall wellbeing and a communal caring for the genuinely needy). If these theories were considered as equally important (as he argues they were in traditional societies) and applied together, we’d be in good shape, but he (and most people) doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. When he asked a doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital how we could unify our society she says something very simple: ” . . . underscore your shared humanity.”

I feel as if there are many opportunities on a local level to do that  — volunteering, belonging to a church or temple or mosque, joining a club, having lunch with a new coworker, taking cookies to a new neighbor, etc. — and while we may be appear to be failing on a macro level, there is hope in the fact that many people are trying to make their own communities more caring, close-knit places. For example, these neighbors, honored by the Boston Globe in their annual roundup of Bostonians making a difference. Everyone benefits when we act altruistically — research seems to indicate that helping others makes people happier. So maybe there’s hope? Even if you think our society is entirely self-interested, sometimes that self-interest can lead to greater good.

The novel The Association of Small Bombs deals with the same questions and issues  as Tribe (or at least I saw it that way, reading them right after each other – the bookconscious theory of interconnectedness at work). It’s a novel set primarily in Delhi, and it’s about the lives impacted by a terrorist bombing in a market. We meet two of the Kashmiri Muslim separatists, one an ideas man and the other a bomb maker, and also the parents of two boys who died in the blast. Their friend, Mansoor, who is Muslim himself, survives, but his young life is deeply impacted. He gets involved with an NGO working to bring attention to the accused bombers who languish in jail for years while the corrupt police and justice system often miss the real terrorists. Through the NGO he comes to meet Ayub, another Muslim, who ends up being drawn into an extremist group, and meets the very bomb maker whose blast injured Mansoor and killed his friends.

That these people would be drawn together in an interlocking set of storylines in one of the most populous cities in the world seems slightly improbable, but Mahajan makes it relatively believable. On the surface, all of the main characters lead relatively purposeless lives; even those who think they are acting out of conviction turn out to be making very little difference. Ayub thinks, “In the end, his role was so small, he felt foolish about the buildup, the training, the wating . . . . Some people will die, he thought, that’s true. But they’ll expand the market’s security after the blast. . . . No — I’m only doing the inevitable . . . . I’m pointing out the flaws in the system. Terror is a form of urban planning.”

I’m still processing that. It’s an interesting way to consider terror. The cooperative society Junger refers to exists in this novel among the terrorists and among the young people in the NGO but doesn’t appear sustainable in either case. The other adults who are not in either group lead the kinds of alienated lives that Junger describes; even their families don’t provide a sustained sense of shared humanity. It’s an eye-opening novel with a bleak view of humankind. I admired it, I think it’s an important book that deals with vital questions, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it very much.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »