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

book398

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…”

🙂

 

Medical Apartheid – Harriet A. Washington (2007)

book399

Subtitle: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

Well, this read left me a bit shattered, not because it’s so graphic, but because it’s so true and it hasn’t stopped – even in this day and age. This is a well-researched look at the history of medical apartheid, which means, basically, the history of medical experimentation on African Americans from the era of slavery to the present day. It’s an incredible read about an important (and much neglected) topic and although it was one of the hardest reads I’ve had in a long time, it’s an important addition to the history of African Americans here in the U.S.

I think that most Americans are aware of the Tuskagee syphilis experiment  from 1932 to 1972 under the auspices of the U.S. Public Health Service. This was a long-term experiment to observe the natural progression of syphilis in untreated subjects, but under the inexcusable idea that the subjects (i.e. the people in the study who had syphilis) believed that they were getting medical care when in fact, quite a few weren’t – and just so medical professionals could see what happened in the lifetime of a poor syphilis patient.

These patients were severely economically disadvantaged (mostly sharecroppers) and poorly educated, and included 600 people who believed that they were receiving free medical care, meals and free burial insurance for participating in this study, a study that even gave 201 participants syphilis (who didn’t have it before), and none who were given penicillin (despite all the evidence that this fairly new antibiotic would cure their disease). (Sorry – that’s a rather long sentence, but I trust that you can keep up.)

(It’s insane that this happened, and continued to occur until the 1970’s. My god. I don’t even have words to put here to describe how PO’d I am at this situation. It’s beyond my vocabulary.

And you know what’s worse? That the medical establishment continued to abuse this population ever since slavery, and it’s happened over and over again. And when you read this book, I hope you’ll feel as disgusted as I am.)

One more example that’s more modern: there are several examples of medical studies looking at new technology (e.g. artificial medical devices or treatment approaches) that are totally based on studies filled by African-American participants. Yes, when the final device is approved and comes to market, the population who tested it for the manufacturers are actually now least likely to afford access to its benefits. Grrrrrrrr.

Back to the book: Washington has done an excellent job writing this book through the perspective of her journalistic lens, and the book’s divided into three parts: the first is about the history of medical experimentation wrt the African-American population; the second is about more recent cases of medical abuse and research, and the third examines how this history has impacted African Americans and their current views on the (mostly) white medical establishment of today.

I worked for almost a decade in public health at the local City Health Department, and when we would offer medical screenings, some folks would participate but there were times when our services were not as well attended as we had hoped, and frankly, after reading this book and learning this history, I fully comprehend any hesitation to do so. I, too, would be careful with any of my interactions, as well, if I had grown up knowing this history of continued racial and medical discrimination against my friends and family.

And this book carefully covers decades and decades of continued abuse of the African American population. It wasn’t just in the “olden days” – it continued up until close to the end of the 20th century, and actually, probably continues in some places to this day if you consider who continues to populate medical studies offering “free health care if you’ll help us with our studies”.  (It’s usually the highly disenfranchised, socially and economically disadvantaged people with few options for health care. Don’t even get me started on the availability and access to effective dental care….)

The Tuskagee study is usually the most famous study that characterizes this trend, and due to the whistle blower who let the cat out of the bag on that*, there is now an Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and federal laws and regulations requiring Institutional Review Boards (or IRBs) that are meant to protect human subjects in studies. (The OHRP is under the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services now.)

So – as you can probably surmise, this was a powerful read for me and it just underscores how tough and amazing the African American population are: these guys survived slavery, medical discrimination, civil rights injustices and more. Just imagine how different life for African Americans could have been without this century’s continued discrimination in almost every aspect of life. Goodness me. I’d also be very very careful when dealing with the medical establishment (or the white establishment in general) if I’d grown up learning this history and yet still continuing to thrive despite the odds.

There is nothing that I can say to make this right, so my advice would be to read this, let it in sink in, and then look at your own communities to see how you can impact them in a positive way somehow. I’m not sure that I really like the direction of this country’s administration right now (understatement of the year), but how to change that? (1) Vote. (2) Make your part of the world more just, kind, and fair in any way that you can.

This was an amazing and thought-provoking read. I hope it is for you as well.

* Someone had to whistle-blow on this study??…

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?

A Curious Mind – Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman (2015)

book398Pulled off the TBR shelf after watching a presentation given by Malcolm Gladwell one evening, this was a really disappointing read in the end. I was trying to read only from the TBR pile, and thought that this might scratch that Gladwell itch, but Grazer is nowhere near as good. Although billed as a book about curiosity, this read struggled mightily with that charge and veered more often than not into the world of the vanity project.

Grazer is a Hollywood producer who has put this flimsy book together based on a few conversations between him and his friends, all of whom apparently kept begging him to write this book about one of his main interests. I felt as though he somehow expected his readers to bow before him, grateful for his small nuggets of wisdom about nothing much in particular.

It wasn’t badly written, but there was not enough material here to develop into a book and the material that was there was more about the famous people Grazer had met or who he knew, much more so than the theme of curiosity. (I felt quite badly for Fishman, who, as his ghostwriter, probably got blamed for the whole thing in the end, even though he may not have been responsible for the actual content.)

So, a disappointing read but them’s the breaks. Another one off the TBR pile and just think of it this way: I’ve now saved you a few hours of reading it yourself. 🙂

March 2017 Reading Review

FullSizeRender

March was a decidedly stronger reading month for me, but I’m not really sure why it was. I think some of it was that I read shorter page length books for the most part, but not certain. Most of the titles that I chose were NF (only 2 F titles this month), and, though I bow my head in shame, only two female authors and one POC. No really old books either as most of them were from the twentieth century. Interesting. (To me, at least. Maybe not so riveting for you!)

To the books:

This coming month will probably follow a similar reading pattern (in terms of number of books I read). Nothing too stupendous on the immediate horizon, but I’m looking forward to reading more titles from my TBR and less from the library. (My TBR pile is a tiny bit too high for my liking so I’ve instituted a book-buying ban for the next few months. We shall see.)

 

Update: I’ve bought two books this week. Must. Do. Better. 🙂

 

Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

book386

A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

Afam_pioneer_familyA number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

stagecoach_mary

(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and it was really interesting to me to learn that once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are:

The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig (1968)

book392

In my last post, I had mentioned that I had fallen upon the Dewey 900s at the library. Such riches that I didn’t even knew existed! Without any more further gushing, let me now introduce you to the title “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig.

As a child, Hautzig and her family had the bad luck to be living in Poland (now Lithuania) just as WWII was starting up and Germany was invading places left, right, and center. She had come home from school one day, only to be faced with the news that she and her parents and grandparents were going to be sent away to Siberia that same day for being evil capitalists. They could only take one small bag with each of them, and there was very little time of to think of what to include in your luggage. How would you ever know what to pack quickly for an unexpected and unwanted trip-with-no-return to a forced labor camp in Siberia?

Hautzig does a great job of communicating the chaos and panic which would happen if your family were suddenly told one day to leave. Siberia is cold, but how cold? What would the living conditions be like as compared to their upper-middle class life in Poland? Looking back at this with twenty-first century eyes, it’s almost unbelievable that this all happened to millions of innocent families, but it did and this autobiography details the experience through the eyes of a young 11 year old girl.

esther-hautzig

The family spend weeks in an unheated cattle car on a train, never knowing where they were going or when they would get there. There were no bathroom facilities, the cars were very crowded with no seats, and no food or water (apart from that that they had brought themselves). None of the passengers were prepared for this (because – why would you be?) and as the train went east, the temperature dropped and the scenery became flat and treeless.

At first, it seems quite an adventure, but as conditions deteriorated, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear. What also becomes clear is that the family and their fellow passengers can do absolutely nothing about their unexpected journey, apart from try to be mentally strong. Her parents (and grandparents) had been of a professional class (her father was an engineer), but as the miles passed, they found out that whatever their professions may have been was to be of no importance in their Siberian future.

The family was separated (never to see each other again), and Esther and her parents eventually wound up at a gypsum mine where her father would be expected to drive a horse and cart, and her mother – who had never worked in her life – was going to be dynamiting the gypsum in the mine. Food was in short supply with watery cabbage soup being the most common meal, and although life is really very hard, Esther and her family survive through the extreme temperatures with few resources. Their privileged life in Lithuania was of little help to them now that they were reduced to survival mode.

This autobiography is an interesting read about a pretty typical middle class family who is suddenly thrown into an atypical situation and how they cope. It’s not easy, but by the time five years have passed, the war is over and the family are set to return. One would think that they would be very excited to get back home and to their former lives, but getting home would mean returning to nothing as their house and possessions would not be waiting. Additionally, Esther had spent five years growing up on the steppe, and to her, it was home much more so that Lithuania would be.

This was an interesting read. I think it’s classified as a YA but the story is so well written that it really sucked me in. Interestingly, the story only came to light when the author Esther Hautzig wrote a letter to a journalist who had written another article about this whole thing, and the reporter suggested to Esther that she write her story down. Hautzig didn’t do any more autobiographical work after that, and in fact, kept well away from it publishing a few titles to do with frugal sewing on a budget.

Despite the YA label, this was an excellently written book about a harrowing experience.

Swabbing the Decks…

swab_decks

It’s time for a general swabbing the decks sort of post today, so thought I would just round up what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been reading. I was at the library the other weekend, and happened to stumble upon a part of the non-fiction section that I haven’t seen before – the Dewey 900s.

book391I tend to focus deeply on a subject, but am trying now to spread the book love a little more widely which has meant me wandering the NF shelves and seeing fabulous titles that I didn’t even know existed. I’m not sure why I haven’t wandered in this direction before, but there you go.

The 900s are the Geography and History part of the library, and seems to have a great selection of titles that are right up (down?) my alley. Having to use great restraint, I picked up two titles the other day, both of which were interesting in their different ways and both of which were fairly satisfying to read. Let me give you a mini-review of the first book, in the interest of time and other limited resources.

HebridesmapWanting to read something very different from current life, I picked up John McPhee’s The Crofter and the Laird, which is a collection of columns covering life in the Hebrides. I have not been up that way yet, so this was pretty interesting to read as McPhee uproots his family (wife and four young daughters) to go and live in a crofter’s cottage on Orunsay for a few months.

Oransay is a tiny island in the Hebrides and seems to have resisted modernization for the most part (at least during the time that McPhee was writing). McPhee writes for the New Yorker magazine, and so as this was a collection of his columns, each chapter is not really connected to previous or following chapters. (And that’s ok.)

In my busiest and most crowded days, I tend to think how nice it would be to go and stay in the Hebrides far away from iphone service and civilization in general so I was curious how this American family would fare in such an environment. It’s not all roses though as the people who live on the small island tend to view “incomers” with reserve when compared with the “islanders” (i.e. the people who live there FT and have been there for generations).

This had the potential to be such a great read, but it wasn’t and I’m not sure quite why. McPhee is a good writer, the subject was interesting, but it seemed really superficial and unfocused overall. It’s as though the writer couldn’t make up his mind as to whether to be a travel narrative, a history of the islands and its people, or life on the island and thus ended up being none of those things. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t jive with this read, but it wasn’t riveting for me. However, it might for someone else so have at it.

I also came upon another read about a Polish family were exiled to Siberia during WWII with only the clothes on their backs. It’s an amazing non-fiction read and deserves its own blog post so expect that this week.

Onward ever onward.

Dreams From my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama (1995)

book390

Wincing at whatever the latest gaffe that our latest President has talked himself into, I thought it would be pretty interesting to take a look at the man who had just left the U.S. Presidency and learn a bit more about his life. Written in 1995 (and thus written when he was only in his early thirties), this well-written autobiography was an easy and interesting read about the life of the first African-American President in these here States.

I really enjoyed this deeper look at Obama, and seeing from where he came and how he had seen his life as he was growing up. I knew that he was born biracial and that he had had a lot of his childhood in Hawaii, but apart from that (and from his actions from when he was in office), I didn’t know that much about him. After having read this book and looking back at his Presidency, I can understand so much more about how he sees the world, how his world view included everyone (as opposed to a few rich white men), and how he had to piece his own identity together from a scattered family.

Regardless of how you feel about Obama, his life is an interesting read. He’s not perfect, but there is much to admire, IMO, and he has always been honest in his flaws and used them as a framework to develop a more tolerant country in so many ways.

This was a fast and fascinating read for me to learn about our former President, one who (for me) is missed every day.

Let’s do some catch-up…

catch_upSo I’ve been reading, but there seem to have been one or two titles which are good but not quite enough to warrant an individual blog post. Honestly, I don’t think it’s the books’ fault so much as it is the reader’s in each case, so don’t think these books are less worthy or anything. It’s mostly a time thing at the moment.

A Long Way Home – Saroo Brierley (2015).

This is an autobiography written by a young man who grew up very poor in an Indian city and who, one day when he was only five years old, was playing on the train tracks with his older brother when he accidentally got locked into a railway carriage and was whisked away across the country to Mumbai, where he was put into an orphanage and then adopted by an overseas couple. This tale is how, by overcoming all the odds, he found his way home again. (This is the book that the movie Lion is based upon, btw.) It’s a fantastic story – that’s true – but I think the read would have been better if he’d used a professional ghostwriter (or editor) to up his writing game a bit. It was well written (in that there were few grammar errors etc.), but the level of writing was rather fundamental and rather clunky at times. Still a good story though. It might be better to watch the film than read the book.

Trifles – Susan Gaspell (1916)

I had recently been playing around with my Century of Reading (COB) project, and wanted to find a title that would help fill in some of the remaining blanks (not many really). So I searched for “books published in 1916”, and wanting a more esoteric title and something that wasn’t 500 pages long, picked out a play which seemed to fit the bill.

Just to be clear, despite the play being called Trifles, the play is not about that wonderful English confection of jelly/jello, whipped cream and other fine tasty tidbits. It’s used, in this case, in the sense of “seemingly unimportant things usually linked with women and said by men”… :-}

This play (which I’d not heard of before but I’m not a dramatic expert by any means) was interesting and is actually one of those stories that stick in your head for ages after you’ve finished it as you mull over the various interpretations of how it could be read (or played).

Set out in the country of somewhere like the Midwest, the narrative revolves around the death of Mr. Wright, a farmer who lived in a remote house along with his wife (obvs. called Mrs. Wright). The local sheriff and a deputy are searching the home for any clues after learning that Mr. Wright had died by strangulation. Was it a murder, and if so, who did it?

At the same time as the police officials are searching for clues, there are two women from the nearby community also accompanying the two men in a tag-along sort of way. The small community is far from other towns so any news is big news to the local folk. (It’s really interesting, btw, to see how these guys treat the crime scene vs. now how the crime scene is treated i.e. stomping around everywhere… 🙂 )

They are all unsure how to explain the crime until the women find a dead canary….

It’s a pretty good play to read, but I was more happy, TBH, that it filled out a year in the COB project. 🙂

books1