Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit (2016)

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The blogosphere has been rather on fire about this short book of essays by the eloquent and passionate Rebecca Solnit. Solnit is an activist for a wide variety of social justice issues, and this quick read is a balm for the soul in terms of how to deal with 45 in the White House.

It’s not a quick fix recipe book, but does have wise words for those who have been impacted by the ascendancy of 45 and his wolf pack, and how to help affect long-term change. If, like me, you’re a tad bit overwhelmed by the sudden 180 degree change in domestic and foreign policies which veer widely every time you wake up (it seems), Solnit has some wise words about looking at change in a long-term view and reminding the reader that all long-time societal impacts are usually composed of loads of small changes happening over a longish amount of time. You might not see the impact but small changes add up.

It’s rather like the analogy of the starfish:

One day on a lonely beach, one person saw that another person was throwing beach-stranded starfishes back into the sea.

“What are you doing?” that person asked.

The starfish rescuer responded, “I’m throwing starfish back into the sea so that they can continue to live.”

The original person said, perplexed, “But there are millions of starfish. How does throwing one starfish back in the sea save the day?”

The starfish thrower responded, “It makes a big difference to that one particular starfish…”

🙂

 

Where in the world…?

hello-600x400Well, hi. I’m here in the world, but have not been able to work on my blog with the regularity that I like due to overload at work and home. Spring tends to be the busy time at work, and then in my non-work time, I’ve been researching a trip that I’m taking with my lovely old mum and twin sister which is fun but does take up some time and energy. (It’ll be worth it in the end, for sure.)

And you know – I have been reading. I’m just about to finish up a non-fiction called “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by medical scholar Harriet Washington. Goodness me. This has been a very difficult and serious read, not because the content is complex but because the content is true and almost too horrible to contemplate.

Washington’s thorough research seems to cover almost every instance of when the U. S. medical system has experimented on the African-American population over the years, with the (white) medical establishment doing everything from giving an unnecessary and unwanted HIV vaccine to healthy infants (without the parental consent) to digging up bodies to sell for dissection at medical schools, from lying to study participants about receiving treatment (the infamous Tuskagee study) to hideous other well documented incidents of other abuses to a population with no recourse to change any of this.

Obviously, this is a tough read for me (as it would be to anyone), and I’ve had to take some breaks – how can people be so horrible to each other (specifically to African-Americans)? – and at the same time, I think it’s important to know this history, and I’ve also been under a tight deadline to finish this since it’s an unrenewable inter-library loan. (And yes – I could have forked over the cash to buy my own copy, but I’m on a book-buying ban AND I’m learning that I’m better as a one-book-reader than trying to juggle several).

Long story short – it’s been an intense reading week and so not much time or energy for putting together a blog post. But trust me – one will be coming on this particular read as I think everyone who is aware of social justice in any form should learn about this issue. One must know the past to influence the future, I think.

I’ve also been reading “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit which is a series of hard-hitting essays on how activists have changed the world for better, even when it’s tough to see the progress. (It’s been helpful to balance the terror that has been coming out of the WH lately.)

So – some hard hitting books here, and once I’m finished with the Washington book, I’m probably going to be heading for some lighter reading to balance things out. It’s astonishing to me that there are years and years of this documented medical abuse and yet no one did anything about it. No wonder that the African-American community tends to stay away from the American health care system. I would as well if I knew that history.

So – that’s where I am at right now. What’s new, Blue’s Clues?

Browsings – Michael Dirda (2015)

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A glorious and exuberant tour of a life steeped in books, Michael Dirda’s Browsings is a balm for the literary soul. Enough of such hyperbole, I say. But this was a good book, and Dirda is like having a very literate friend who seems to have read just about everything. Any time you read some Dirda, your TBR list is going to lengthen with books and authors who you didn’t even know existed.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning book review columnist who has written for a lot of elite pubs (including WaPo and NYT). He has a Ph.D. in comparative literature (including Mediaeval poetry) and yet writes in an inclusive yet scholarly manner. Not having an enormous background in Mediaeval poetry (and similar), I must own up to not being familiar with about half of the titles that he writes about, but he writes about these books in such an accessible way that you don’t mind. I think this is quite an achievement – that someone with such an academic background can make poets of the Middle Ages seem appealing is not for the faint-hearted.

“None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we’d like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore; maybe try something a little unusual, a little different, and then don’t stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on – be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly unashamedly promiscuous…”

This book is a collection of a year’s worth of book review columns that Dirda had put together for The American Scholar, and ranges across every kind of book there is. Having a Ph.D. from Cornell, Dirda has taught literature at the university level, including one about the “Boy’s Own” kind of adventure books from 1860-1930, a few of which look appealing. (To see the type of books that he suggests for interested readers, see my review of The 39 Steps by John Buchan [1915] here.)

I may be going overboard in my gushing his praise, but I loved this read and I think you may as well. Don’t be put off if you’re not well grounded in long-forgotten esoteric titles – this will be happy hunting ground for you, I promise. Enjoy!

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in North America – Thomas King (2012)

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“While the hardware of civilization (iron pots, blankets, guns) was welcomed, the software of Protestantism and Catholicism – original sin, universal damnation, atonement – was not and Europeans were perplexed, offended and incensed…”

This was a fascinating read about the troubling history of Native Americans in both the U.S. and Canada and written by an eloquent English professor who is also Cherokee (and Greek, as it so happens) so it was a perspective that was very unusual for me. It was also so interesting especially after having learned so much about the U.S. historical background of African-Americans last month. There are a lot of overlaps unfortunately – not the same, but definitely some issues in common.

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

It was also interesting as I happen to live in West Texas which was/is the large original home for the Apaches, the Comanche, and the Arapaho, and so our local history is peppered with references to battles and treaties developed throughout time. (It must be added that the history tends to reflect a very one-sided perspective of things… Guess which one?)

(If you’re curious to know more about the Indian Nations of Texas, this is a good introductory site from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. It’s much more complicated than a John Wayne movie, let me tell you.)

This title was actually more of a collection of thoughtful essays with the common theme of the history of Native Americans in Canada and the U.S.

Goodness gracious me – how this group has been mistreated by governments over the years. Coming as it does through the author’s eyes, it’s not a straight history but more of a conversation over coffee with the author, and I think that this worked really effectively as you, the reader, were exposed and immersed in the anger and frustration of the author as he reflects over the events.

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One of the Native Americans at a local tribal celebration here in West Texas.

Essays covered a wide spectrum from how the early settlers set treaties with a particular tribe (and then broke them very easily) and this was a thread throughout the whole collection, really. It was tough to read the endless broken agreements over the years, and knowing this now, it’s more understandable to me how some of the Native American nations are mired in poverty, unemployment and other social ills.

One of the essays covered how Hollywood used the Native American and created a particular image for its own ends. According to the author, between 1894-2000, Hollywood made more than 300 movies featuring Indians (an accepted term for the author) as characters but rarely using a Native American as the actor. Producers were seeking “real” Indians and “authentic” Indian culture. To get a picture of the most frequent image of Native Americans for Hollywood, think of the well-known sculpture, “The End of the Trail” by James Earl Fraser in 1915. (See below.)

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Author Thomas King. (Photo credit: Hartley Goodweather.)

Other tidbits:

  • At one point, Canada produced a dollar coin that featured a totem pole with a raven in its design. Some of the Indian groups viewed this design as very insensitive and called this the “Death Dollar” as the raven is a sign of death for some tribes.
  • Will Rogers (U. S. actor/satirist) was a Cherokee, but in all his films, he never once played an Indian. (Compare with the painful effort that Johnny Depp did in “The Lone Ranger”.)
  • Re: the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the stars in the pavement project): there are more cartoon characters and dog actors represented in this than there are Indians. There are only two stars for actors who were selected to play an Indian character, and one of those was actually Sicilian.
  • There are more than 600 individual and recognized tribes in Canada and more than 550 nations in the U.S.
  • There were two main foci to “handle” the Indians in the early years: Extermination or assimilation.
    • Extermination of Native peoples was “acceptable” due to the concept of “Manifest Destiny” (i.e. “this new land is meant only for us” [i.e. Christians]). It was justified by the concept of “natural laws” and “survival of fittest” (twisting of Darwin’s evolution idea which was pretty new at that time).
    • Assimilation: Indians were seen as “savages” who had “no understanding of orthodox theology, devoid of complex language and lacking civilized manners”. White people (and mostly religious groups) saw the savages as needing to be saved from themselves and made into the image of white people (or how they saw themselves). There was no compromise.
  • The crux of the problem, according to the author (and many others) was land as Will Rogers said: “Buy land. They ain’t making more of the stuff.”
  • King notes that land was “the defining element of aboriginal cultures” whereas for white people, land was only a commodity which had value only for what you can take from it or for what you can get for it.

So – this was a powerful book that was really well written (although I would have like a bibliography). It wasn’t a scholarly book with footnotes or anything (and very openly reports that it’s not at the start of the book) , so through that lens, it really worked as a perspective of someone who has been in the trenches and knows of what he speaks. It was a fascinating look into Native Americans and their history.

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One of the Native Americans at a recent tribal celebration in Lubbock, Texas.

February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

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When I happened to see this title at the library, I grabbed it as reviews of it have been all over the interwebs and I was curious to see how it read. Wow. It’s a provocative and challenging piece concerning race relations in the U.S. in the form of an impassioned letter from a black father to his son.

Written echoing the narrative structure of James Baldwin (who wrote The Fire Next Time, a similar narrative addressed to his nephew), Coates writes a missive to his teenaged son on how to live life in America as a black man. It’s interesting to read, but wow – Coates is so angry about twenty-first century life for African-American people and seems to hold so little hope for life to change from his son.

As a white person reading this short volume, his strong feelings against “people who believe they are white” took me a few steps back – “Wait a minute. I haven’t done anything to earn this invective”, and in fact, I felt so strongly that I actually put the book down to reconsider whether to continue reading it.

After sleeping on it, I decided to pick it up again to finish the read and see what Coates’ total message really was. He. Is. So. Angry. He also seems to have little belief in any individual agency that people can change their lives for the better, blaming all (almost all?) of America’s recent ongoing racial troubles on the troubling history of entrenched cultural racism stemming from the years of slavery.

As an English (and American) white person, I felt personally attacked and blamed for something over which I had no control. Slavery happened way before I was born, and so one side of me thought that this was something that was old news. Yes, it happened. Yes, it was horrible. Yes, it should never happen again, but at some point, one should consider the tenet of “History is not Destiny”…

coatesBut then I realized that I come from a background and history of never-ending white privilege. I have never had to deal with racism directed towards me in a negative fashion, so how can I judge whether Coates is over-estimating his views? I can’t, and I have no right to do so even if I could. He is entitled to his opinions and how he views the world, and I, as a privileged white woman, should pay attention to that. His opinion of life in America for POC was shocking and sad for me to read. No one should have to live in fear every day.

The essay in this book is not focused at me, a white person who has not felt the daily fear of day-to-day life as an African-American person may well feel. As a white person, society usually reflects my race in the ads, the films, the books, the very life I lead. I can usually guarantee that someone who looks like me will be reflected back to me on the TV screen and similar, that I can (and am) living the manufactured Dream that Coates refers to: the Dream of green lawns, picket fences, and all the other fixtures of the American ideal. However, if I was a person of African descent, how often can one say that? How can I believe that Dream is achievable for me if I don’t see people who look like me in it? If I only read reports of people who look like me getting killed, incarcerated, addicted?

It’s true that Coates is very angry about life in the U.S., and fears for his son and his future. Just witness the endless numbers of police shootings, black-on-black crime, poverty, unemployment, and disproportionate numbers of black men in the U.S. prison system, and one can’t rationally deny that racism is not alive and well in the world of today. If I was an African-American person growing up here, how could I not be angry at the way that America has treated me? I’d be mad as hell as well.

So this was quite the provocative piece for me. By the time I had finished this fairly short read, I had definitely revised my views of U.S. race relations and of Coates. It’s an emotional piece of writing for me to read and I admire Coates in some ways. I wish that he did not feel so angry about the world in which he lives as there must be happy pieces in his world somewhere but there is no mention of that. He seems to have a very all-or-nothing view of the whole situation which seems to be rather extremist in some ways and to foster little hope for improvement on any level.

But then I consider what he says about how America in the twentieth-first century is based on public policies which have their roots in slavery and segregation, and for me to deny that would be foolish.

Of course life today is impacted by the life of yesterday. But how to change that? Should we take the perspective of recognizing what’s better and still continuing to strive for more improvements? Or should one take Coates’ perspective of “not enough, we deserve more and we won’t rest until we get it”?

As a privileged white woman, the argument could be that as I’m already in a comfortable position, it’s easy for me to have the former perspective. Is it me being too much of a Pollyanna to view the world in that manner? Should I get my (white and idealistic) blinders off and more fully realize that life is still hugely affected negatively by race in the U.S. and, according to Coates, always will be?

I think that that is the biggest strength of Coates’ narrative piece here: that his book invites everyone to take a closer look at how racism affects people (even if it’s not you), and how its insidious effects can chip away at a whole people one day at a time. It’s also a muscular “take no prisoners” letter to a son from a father who passionately wishes to protect and prepare him for his adult life.

This ended up being a fascinating read which really opened my eyes about modern life in America for people of color. I recommend this book to anyone (wherever you may fall on the spectrum) as it will be certain to shake up how you see the world. And isn’t that the point of any good book?

(And if you’re interested in another really thoughtful read by Coates, check out his article in The Atlantic about reparations…) It will make you think of the situation in a whole new light and that, I think, is the be-all of reading non-fiction – at least for me. Does it affect your world view in some way by opening new worlds of thought about something or someone? That’s the very definition of powerful writing, if you ask me.)

Coates, BTW, is the son of a former Black Panther and so understandably has strong views. Link this with Beyoncé’s SuperBowl half-time show, and it’s interesting to consider how this will all play out with a new generation. Food for thought, indeed.

There are, of course, tons of reviews et al. out there around the interwebs, but here are several that I really like about this huge important issue:

What are your thoughts?

Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda (2000)

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Having just finished up Michael Dirda’s book of essays about books, I feel quite bereft for several reasons, really. One is that no matter how hard I try, I will not reach his level of literary achievements – He seems to have a familiarity with every title out there, no matter how far back you go. Second – he writes extremely well about what he reads (without a trace of boasting about the sheer numbers), and three, he’s been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and finally, four, he seems to be a nice all-around guy.

In case you’re not up on who Dirda is, he is the Washington Post’s Senior Book Critic and he has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Cornell University.  He’s also incredibly well read, and I’ve dipped into his erudite blog (now defunct), but you can see more of his writing via The American Scholar’s Browsing column. I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve read by him so far. I own three of his books (Readings (2000), Bound to Please (2005), and Book by Book (2005)) but have only read this title so far. (Read quite a few of his columns though.) However, he definitely meets the self-determined criteria of one of my famed literary dinner party guests. (Guests so far include Nick Hornby, Robert Lacey and Dirda. Hmm. I clearly need to balance up the table a bit in terms of gender and POC… I’ll work on that.)

Basically, this book is a collection of essays and columns from his writing at the Washington Post, and in the same vein as Nick Hornby (except a little more elevated, one might say). Hornby’s easier to read and pretty funny, whilst Dirda is much more scholarly and serious. Both are good in different ways – just depends what you’re in the mood for, really. Just be prepared to add oodles of titles to your TBR list.

So this collection covers a wide range of topics, from the challenge of getting his three young boys to read more to the writings of Sophocles to the book-buying adventures in which he engages every now and then. As a bookie person, I really enjoyed each column but must be candid and admit that there were quite a few titles of which I had never heard. (Boy – he seems to have read everything and remembers what he read as well!)

I particularly liked his quote about traveling:

“A good rule of thumb is: Pack twice as many books as changes of underwear.”

Sounds rather sensible to me.

So – if you like books about books, or reading about books, and enjoy adding five million titles to your TBR, then I highly recommend Dirda’s columns. I really enjoyed this read, and now moving the other two titles up the pile a bit. (Want to spread them out a bit so I can look forward to them. Plus he has a new title coming out in 2015. Joy.)

 

Books about books…

booksaboutbooksAs fellow bibliophiles, I’m sure we all have our own favorite books about books, and in a moment of spare time, I thought I’d compile a list of books about books which are either titles that I’ve read or that have a space on my real TBR shelves at home. I’m sure that there are lots of other titles out there – this list is just what I had handy. Feel free to add your own favorites! (And to give credit where credit is due, this line of thought was also triggered by a post at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings blog as well. Thanks!)

So – to the list of books about books (or reading or similar). Please feel free to contribute any titles that you’ve read and enjoyed as well. The more the merrier!

  • Of Studies (an essay) – Sir Francis Bacon (1597)
  • The End of your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe (2012)
  • The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett (2007)
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • Ten Years in the Tub – Nick Hornby (2013)
  • The Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby (2004)
  • Classics for Pleasure – Michael Dirda (2007)
  • Readings – Michael Dirda (2000)
  • The Read-Aloud Handbook – Jim Trelease (2006 edition)
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop – Lewis Buzbee (2006)
  • Bound to Please – Michael Dirda (2007)
  • Reading the OED – Ammon Shea (2009)
  • The Man who Loved Books too Much –Allison Hoover Bartlett (2009)
  • Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” – Mark Garvey (2009)
  • Word Freak – Stefan Fatsis (2001)
  • A Little Book of Language – David Crystal (2010)
  • Walking English – David Crystal (2009)
  • Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason – Nancy Pearl (2003)
  • More Book Lust – Nancy Pearl (2005)
  • 500 Great Books by Women – Bauermeister et al. (1994)
  • Read a Book a Week (and be Well-Read in a Year) – Kenneth McLeish (1992)
  • Rough Guide to Classic Novels – Simon Mason (2008)

I’m currently immersed in Readings, a book of essays about books and reading from the excellent Michael Dirda. Swoon. Loving every minute of it even though he seems to have read every book in the English language. Good for the TBR pile.

Have any more titles to add? You know how there can never be too many books about books! (A few titles have sneaked in as they are about language/words, but I thought they could count as well. Books are made up of words, after all.)

(Edit to add: I forgot about this delightful gem from Alan Jacobs: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction…)

Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit – Leslie Marmon Silko (1996)

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This is a collection of more than 20 essays that cover author (and English professor) Marmon Silko’s perspective on life for Native Americans (or First Peoples) in the U.S.  toward the close of the twentieth century.

Some of the essays were pretty eye-opening, as despite being an independent minority population of their own, it was clear that this Native American First Peoples tribe of the Laguna Puebla has social justice problems and public health issues akin to other minority groups who have faced colonialism of different types across the world.

Mormon Silko grew up in the Laguna Pueblo tribe and witnessed how the tribe has reacted to modern issues as well as how the group has tried hard to maintain its history and traditional ways. As with any group who has a mostly nomadic history, traditions were mostly passed down orally from, in this case, her grandfather and via the tales of the Spider Woman who was the basis of the Pueblo Creation Myth.

(Side Note: I personally adore this story of how the world was created and how we continue to be linked with one another, no matter who or where we are. (See the myth here for details.) In fact, I love the myth so much that I used it in a speech that I gave on campus just the other day and any time that I’m referring to the importance of collaborative work and everything/one is connected, it comes up.)

Articulate and angry, Mormon Silko’s personal essays are diverse in subject, covering topics from her childhood to Pueblo culture to abuses by the Border Patrol to land and water rights. The introductory essay was pretty academic and needed quite a lot of concentration on my part as a reader – challenging when I’m on the elliptical at the gym! However, the remaining selection of essays was more on the level of a General Reader (as opposed to academic writing for a tenure packet) and so the tone does vary substantially throughout the book.

The vague overall tone was one of anger, and I could empathize with the author on this. I’m sure I’d feel similar emotions if my descendants (and current family) still faced ongoing discriminatory practices off the tribe’s reservation. However, steps towards improvement must have been made since the book was written?

As with the varying tone, the quality of the essays was variable as well – not that there were some weak ones, but I do think that there were some that were much more powerful and strongly written, and the level seemed to decline as the book progressed. (Or was it reader fatigue?)

As with almost any collection of essays, especially those written by an academic presumably enmeshed in the tenure process, and then combined with the usual formulae of a typical university creative writing program, there was some repetition where it was obvious that one essay had been retooled slightly to meet a different objective or journal. I tend to find this repetition annoying as I would argue that doing so was the result of being lazy/too busy/on summer break. Some careful editing would cut this problem out, but who’s the editor when one is a creative writing faculty? Both judge and the jury at times, I think, unless you’re careful.

So overall, a fairly well presented selection that portray a way of life that’s arguably disappearing over the years. Just a few content problems, but nothing that a good editor could not have mended.

Library Haul Update

I seem to have a little more time with job projects now that I’ve got some more experience under my belt, and as I love going to the library and looking at the shelves, I did just that on Saturday. I don’t know if I’m going to have all the time to read these titles, but I had fun choosing them. No matter – it’s the fun that counts in this case!

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Top to bottom:

  • The Witness to Prosecution – Agatha Christie (F mystery)
  • The Lake of Darkness – Ruth Rendell (F mystery)
  • Here is Where: Discovering America’s Forgotten History – Andrew Carroll (NF travel)
  • Our Hearts Young and Gay – Cornelia Otis Skinner (F) – giant large print as that’s all the library had… at least I won’t need my reading glasses!
  • The Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison (NF personal essays)
  • MaddAdam – Margaret Atwood (F – speculative)
  • Chinatown: A Portrait of an Unseen Society – Gwen Kinkead (NF-travel/sociological)

Any suggestions to start with?

And I’ve just finished a couple of crackin’ good novels – reviews to come!

Aaah. It’s good to be a reader.