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

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

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

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

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

 

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Cork Boat is one of the titles I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale. Yes, I am going to read The Scapegoat; it’s our June book club pick. It hadn’t arrived yet, anyway, so I decided this would be a good distraction from the various stressful things in my life. I was right.

John Pollack was a political speechwriter when, disgusted by the gridlock in Washington (sadly, about twenty years ago), he decided to take some time off to pursue a boyhood dream: building a boat made of corks. In Cork Boat he tells the story of how he organized dozens of people — friends, relatives, neighbors, and even strangers — to help him and his good friend Garth Goldstein bring the boat to life. Along the way, he took a job writing speeches at the Clinton White House, returning to his previous job working for Michigan Congressman David Bonior after the election, and even taking a job writing for an expedition to Antarctica. None of this kept him from pursuing his dream boat, and when it was finished, getting it shipped to Portugal where he and Goldstein and an assortment of friends and family members helped them travel from Barca d’Alva to Porto on the Douro River.

It’s an enjoyable book, one that might make you want to travel off the beaten path, or cause a little wistfulness for whatever you dreamed of as a child. It’s also a good reminder that in a world often fraught with conflict, hardship, struggle, and hardship, we could all benefit from paying attention to the cork boats in our lives. Maybe no one you know is doing something on this scale, but you probably know someone who is pursuing a hobby or past time just for the joy of it, or to prove to themself that they can reach a particular goal, or to bring people together around a common purpose. If you seek those stories, they’re out there to enjoy among the din of political rancor, intolerance, and human suffering. Cork Boat is a decent place to start.*

Quick aside: for May, my book club read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. It’s written in a style I didn’t enjoy — very brief chapters with questions at the end of each, which makes it kind of choppy and occasionally repetitive — but it was thought provoking, and led to a good discussion about white privilege and racism. We decided we’d recommend it to people who haven’t really explored these issues.

*Good News Network isn’t a bad place to look, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ve been listening to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead on my commute because it’s this month’s pick for a book group I’m invited to on Monday. Audiobooks are not my first preference but I figured it was a way to squeeze in reading another book, especially since I had a Kirkus assignment to read and review. The narration of The Underground Railroad, by Bahni Turpin, is very well done, if you do happen to be an audiobook fan.

If you haven’t already heard about this book it is a highly acclaimed novel by an author who was already well regarded before The Underground Railroad, which  won the National Book Award and drew reviews comparing it to BelovedLesMiserablesThe Invisible Man and other literary greats.  I think Whitehead’s brilliance in this book is in the way he mixes the actual American past with speculative history but hews always to the core truth of his novel: that racism is not going anywhere without justice, and that justice is impossible unless people choose it. Mabel, Cora’s mother, has her own very brief chapter towards the end of the book, in which readers finally learn what became of her (Cora believes she abandoned her, Ridgeway the slave catcher believes she is the only one of his quarry ever to elude him). As she is deciding what to do herself, Mabel thinks, “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

Simply put but true. That’s the central theme of this book. Unfortunately in Whitehead’s imagined nineteenth century America, very few people refuse, and those who do suffer unspeakable horrors from which they never fully recover, if they even survive. Nearly every character who helps Cora, black or white, ends up dead or hunted by those who wish them dead. Royal, who rescued Cora from Ridgeway after he’d finally caught her, tells Cora “. . . that every one of her enemies, all the masters and overseers of her suffering, would be punished, if not in this world, then the next, for justice may be slow and invisible, but it always renders its true verdict in the end.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this; Cora’s story and those of the other black characters in The Underground Railroad are unrelentingly painful and hopeless — even if they reach “safe” territory or are “freed” they are not free of racism and they live in a nation where racial injustice and violence are the norm. The pain of reading this book isn’t in reflecting on America’s history — after all, Whitehead takes creative license with history, speculating enough that this is not merely historical fiction but something more radical, a work of imagined  historical fiction — the pain comes from the fact that the truth of the novel is not in our past. It’s our present, it’s the root of many of America’s problems today.

Reading this book in light of the recent actions to roll back many civil rights actions taken by the last administration, and to “double down” as the New York Times reports, on the war on drugs, despite much evidence that harsh penalties and harsh policing did not work, and has increased racial inequality and caused untold suffering, especially for women of color, is especially painful. The America we live in today, ruled by fear of the “other” based on a highly delusional sense of superiority, is quite recognizable in The Underground Railroad. While Cora’s America is somewhat more lawless, and some of the crimes perpetrated in The Underground Railroad would be prosecuted today even if they were directed at black citizens, there is still today official sanction of racist policies in the name of “justice.”  Perhaps this is even starker to me because I am in another book group reading The New Jim Crow month by month, one chapter at a time and sharing articles and talks with each other on racial inequality and injustice.

So, did I enjoy The Underground Railroad? That would probably not accurately characterize my experience of the book. I think it’s an amazing piece of writing. I certainly sat in my car more than once to hear a few more lines before it was time to go into work. It will stay with me, and I was left wondering about Cora’s fate – the ending was perfect. It entered my consciousness and interacted with other things I’ve read and thought. Parts if it threw me for a loop — it’s not straight narration — but that is in service to the story, not some writerly trick. All of that makes it a great read.

But be warned it’s also wrenching, and at times nauseating. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Feeling slightly wrenched by another’s fictional experiences is good for helping someone privileged, as I am, to try to wrap my head around what black Americans experience every day. So read it. Be ready to let it work on you. And then do something; take Mabel’s words and live them: refuse to be a part of the meanness of the world. One thing I’ve come to understand is that it’s not enough to reject racist ideas, what’s required in this world is to openly oppose them, in thought, word and deed. Call or write an elected or appointed official to oppose racist policies. Tell someone you hear victimized by racist talk that you are with them and you are sorry. Tell someone saying racist things that you will not listen to such talk. None of this is easy but it’s what’s required if justice is ever to come. The thing I will take away from The Underground Railroad is what it says about the role of free will in the world. Refusing isn’t just refusing, it’s choosing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Over the past few weeks things have been chaotic in the world and in my family. I read another Sophie KinsellaMy Not So Perfect Life, about a young woman, Katie, trying to break into marketing who has a boss, Demeter, she both envies and finds overbearing and inconsiderate. it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, just what I needed in the midst of my chaos. As the story unfolds Katie figures out that she isn’t the only one spinning her social media life, and that Demeter isn’t as witchy as she once thought. As she’s figuring this out, Katie is also helping her father and stepmother open a glamping concern on the farm where she grew up in Somerset. The book left me a) wanting to go to London, b) wanting to go glamping and c) feeling ever so slightly at peace as I went to sleep, although only ever so slightly. I find Kinsella’s writing to be a pleasure, and her books tend to offer some social commentary that is interesting to contemplate as you’re enjoying the storytelling.

When I finished that I was fishing around for something else to download from my library that same night — I don’t care to try sleeping without disappearing into a book first these days — and I came across a book that caught my eye when it came out last year We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun. It’s a book about the Amy Biehl murder in a Cape Town township in August, 1993 (the same year my son was born). Biehl was my age, born in 1967. She was on a Fullbright scholarship studying in Cape Town (where my son has spent time) when she died at the hands of a mob, and her story made international headlines because while the killing was racially and politically motivated, Biehl was actually an ANC supporter and was studying the rights of women, especially black women.

Van der Leun’s book is not really about the murder, or at least not only. It’s primarily about the legacy, both in terms of how Biehl’s family, who had never been to Africa, became involved in Cape Town, founding a foundation in their daughter’s name and getting to know South African luminaries as well as their Biehl’s killers, and about the way the murder impacted those who were there, innocent bystander or violent mob member, and their families as well. In particular van der Leun examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known around the world as a bright example of hope, peace, and nonviolent resolution to centuries of oppression, violence, and racism. I’ve never read such a measured discussion of the TRC. Van der Leun openly admires the ideal, but points out the many flaws in the process itself. For example, the wrongly convicted could not apply for pardon without claiming guilt , which meant innocent people (possibly some of Biehl’s convicted killers among them) had to admit to things they didn’t do to get out of prison. Truth seemed to be missing, to van der Luen, and reconciliation seemed a little discordant.

What I admired most is that van der Luen spent years getting to know all the people she writes about, Easy, one of the convicted killers whose reconciliation with Biehl’s parents made him a celebrity, Mzi, a Buddhist who was a militant member of the PAC, who helps her track down some of the other men implicated in the attack on Biehl, and many of their friends and family members. Van der Leun spends hours, day after day, in Gugulethu, the township where Biehl died and where most of the people involved still live. She gets to know many former gang and PAC members and talks to them about their lives pre and post apartheid and the violence they perpetrated. It’s a side of the struggle we outside of Africa often don’t hear about — we hold up the peacemakers, Mandela and Tutu, but we don’t think much about the violence that was a daily part of life. Nor do most of us think about the racism that is so steeped in South African culture that it remains an open part of life for many of the people van der Leun knows, black and white, rich and poor. No, thinking about racism in South Africa might lead to thinking about racism here in America, and no one wants that. (sarcasm) Truly, it’s human nature to avoid what’s hard and flock to the story we can feel good about.

We Are Not Such Things is, like all my favorite books, about being human. It’s about longing for identity and place, family and community, about the falsity of freedom if you’re poor or marginalized, and the myriad ways people hurt each other. It’s about hope, but it’s mainly about reality, which is, if not hopeless is somewhat less than hopeful most days, for most people. South Africa today certainly embodies that. There is a beauty in the broken world she describes, but not the voyeuristic outsider view of someone who just visited it to write about it. Van der Leun moved to South Africa to be with her fiancee, who grew up there. She openly writes about her discomfort living in the privileged white Cape Town and being more at home in Gugulethu, being an English speaker struggling with Xhosa, being a woman who fits in more with former gangster men than with their wives and sisters. Above all We Are Not Such Things is about the very human condition of discomfort, which is very familiar to me right now. Perhaps that is why I spent two weeks slowly reading it, and why I find myself still thinking about it now.

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I’m not sure what to say about this book that will do it justice — it’s a good read, a novel that both tells a story and speaks truth, and it made me feel my white privilege acutely. Adichie manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking, and she takes readers into communities and cultures many of us don’t know. It you’ve read booksconscious for long, you know that for me, that’s pretty much the total package — good writing, truth, transport, compelling narrative. Oh, and characters who are alive.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and her childhood sweetheart Obinze. They come of age in Nigeria under military rule and both get fed up with the university strikes and decide to leave. Ifemelu follows her Aunty Uju to America, where she finds things are not what she expected. Obinze, denied an American visa, ends up trying his luck in England, where he has a cousin. I don’t want to give away details of what happens to each of them, but readers follow their struggles and successes until, full circle, the story returns to Nigeria.

Part of the story is that Ifemelu writes a blog about racism; in America she experiences being black for the first time (late in the book she tells a white American “I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black). The blog posts in the novel are particularly relevant, painful reading now.  She also writes in a refreshing way about the immigrant experience. I know refugees in my community, and I know how shocking it has been for them to come here and experience the reality of America as compared the image they held while waiting to come here. I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that some people, not refugees but other immigrants, don’t find what they are seeking and return to their countries. That’s not the story we’re told about the American Dream. I appreciated the view that America isn’t the end of people’s stories in this book.

Adiche, describing Ifemelu’s discovery of Obinze’s favorite books in her local library in Philadelphia, writes, “how could a string of words make a person ache for a place he did not know?” Of course, I recognized that feeling. If you do too, you will find that familiar, pleasant ache in Americanah. The thing is you might also ache for a place you do know — America. But right now, I can’t think of a better way to do that than to read fiction.

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