Monday, April 2, 2018
Morgan Jerkins is in a hurry to become a well known writer and she is trying to get our attention in any way she knows how—jump-starting her celebrity by being polarizing. She is young still, twenty-five now. I predict she will recognize her own sense of entitlement when she is a little older. But it is awfully hard to dislike someone so articulate and eager to participate in the big questions we face today. At least we know what she is thinking.
The more I read by and about black women’s experiences, the more I think this is a long time coming, a national therapy. As long as black women feel comfortable talking out loud about how they interpret the behaviors of the rest of us, we should be listening. Black men have been trying to tell us forever that black women are fierce. Well, white America is just about to find out how fierce.
This book of essays gives insight into the experience of a young woman growing up, discovering her sexuality, despairing of her beauty, seeking a path to enlightenment. What kills me, after I saw a picture of her online, is that she is gorgeous, radiant with youth and health, and all we hear in this book is how afraid she is that she is not beautiful enough. Yes, her figure is a handful—an armful, really—but for plenty of folks this is a good thing.
We get a perspective on black hair that I haven’t heard before. I have wondered about the fetishization of hair among black women. I could see they were traumatized about it, and made to feel as though their natural, soft, curly hair weren’t beautiful. Jerkins tells us black hair has always been a source of sexuality. That not only white people want to touch that corona of power—black men do, too. This makes enormous sense to me. Of course black hair is powerful, and sexy…which is why it must always be corralled in braids, or straightened.
Even within these constraints, black women have managed to make an art of their hair. I won’t take that away from them. But I definitely think it is time to stop feeling badly about black hair. Natural hair makes a powerful statement, and it is a touch-magnet. Use it.
Jerkins was brave alright when she gives us chapter and verse on her sexual fantasies. All of a sudden I’m glad I don’t have long straight blond hair, when most of my youth I, like Jerkins, yearned for that unattainable source of beauty, privilege, and class. But these are distractions, youthful stumbling blocks we place in front of ourselves. Jerkins had much more than blond hair to worry about when she attended an IV-League school where most everyone tries to act as though everything is under control.
It is a privilege to attend Princeton, it has enormous resources. Fortunately Jerkins was able to take advantage of the access Princeton offers, but like many of her fellow students, she got confused by everyone’s seeming self-sufficiency. She didn’t feel self-sufficient—why does everyone look, act, sound so self-absorbed? This is the whitest thing Jerkins did…to take advantage of that bastion of privilege and not realize that it doesn’t automatically give one access to a job, or everyone else’s attention.
But I wish her well. She’s brave. Fierce. She is far more willing to expose herself than I would be, say, and more willing to lay claim to her right to other people’s contacts. She’ll surely find a place in the conversation. Good luck with that.
The final essays in the book felt exploratory, which is only right when the author is just getting started. Jerkins discusses a worthwhile French film, Girlhood, by a white filmmaker about young black girls in Paris. This is the third time in two months that I have read discussion about the appropriation of experience by someone only looking, not experiencing, certain events. I am not sure how I feel about this yet, so will just have to take onboard that this is a discussion which animates more and more people.
Jerkins raises Beyoncé’s Lemonade special, how it is not exploitative but inclusive even while recognizing that "black women are not one thing.” Further, Jerkins shares the criticism bell hooks has aimed at Beyoncé for a “simplified worldview…a false construction of power.” Jerkins merely says that not all of us have to be always fighting for something larger than ourselves.
This is a particularly hard position to argue in light of all she said about Beyoncé’s army of musicians, followers, admirers. Without a doubt Beyoncé is magnificently talented. With great gifts come great responsibility. No? hooks has a good point. Beyoncé works enormously hard to stay at the pinnacle of her field. But even she can learn concepts that may be new to her and important to that army she commands to generate real power.
Jerkins’ book did its intended work on me: I hadn’t seen the HBO video released when Beyoncé’s Lemonade album came out. I’m looking around for an opportunity to see it now. I want to read bell hooks’ essays discussing Beyoncé, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl again, to see what Jerkins calls “perhaps the finest example of satire by a black woman.” I’m interested.
Below, find a short video first published by The Guardian, about Jerkins in Harlem, and the gentrification happening there. She acknowledges some privilege here.
Thursday, March 29, 2018
Steven Cohen is back running hedges (or do we call them dodges?) on Wall Street after being banned for two years from investing other people’s money. He is sixty-one years old, and has houses filled with beautiful things. His lifetime focus is trying to edge others in the market using whatever means necessary. He is said to have a reptilian cool when it comes to trading on the margins, making him one of the best traders ever. Cold-blooded is one thing. Cheating with inside information is another.
He can deny it all he wants. Nobody believes him because “everybody does it.” Proprietary, nonpublic information, the ‘black edge’ of the title, “is like doing in elite-level cycling or steroids in professional baseball. Once the top cyclists and home-run hitters started doing it, you either went along with them or you lost.” But it is also that kind of wrong: it corrupts the process so completely that winning no longer means anything.
Kolhatkar wrote for Bloomberg Businessweek for most of the time she spent gathering material for this book, but now she works as a staff writer at The New Yorker. She has the skill to make a boring story about old white men on Wall Street buying stuff interesting. We learn what didn’t work the last time government lawyers went after Cohen. If we are going to stop the kind of self-aggrandizement that leads to corruption of our most important governing principles, we need people who are brave enough to take on the cheaters.
That wouldn't be current and former employees of Cohen’s staff who were so internally corrupt already, like lifelong liar and cheat Matt Martoma, serving nine years for his part in the Elan trade that made Cohen dump and short stock he held in a company with a new Alzheimer drug, netting Cohen an estimated $275 million. Martoma had to change his name from Ajai Thomas because he was expelled from Harvard Law School for illegally modifying his transcript to get a clerkship.
Kolhatkar gives Martoma the slightest bit of cover by suggesting Martoma was traumatized in his childhood by a demanding father, but I’m afraid what we see is a character weakness so severe that Martoma felt entitled to criminal behaviors despite being a young, handsome, privileged man. His father says at his trial that he "maxed out" his gifts. Steve Cohen is the same kind of man. He has one gift that we can see. He is also more willing to be criminal than we are, perhaps as compensation for a kind of social and spiritual impoverishment. He will be remembered for…what? For buying things? Illegally. Wow. Big man.
If I understood the investigations into Steve Cohen, it was conducted separately by three different branches of government: the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the Securities & Exchange Commission. These players got together occasionally to share information, but were all the time afraid they could not make a case with the information they had gleaned unless someone in the Cohen organization flipped. Kolhatkar has an especially interesting discussion on why the ethically-challenged Martoma did not flip. To date we do not know why.
Several cases were being investigated and litigated by this same group at the same time, i.e., cases for other insider trading by the same miscreants, individual cases against Cohen’s current and former employees, cases against Cohen’s company, etc. Cohen did end up paying more than a billion dollars in fines, but he was never jailed. He was just prevented from playing with other people’s money for two years. One of Cohen’s former traders, David Ganek, actually countersued government entities, the FBI and Preet Bharara’s office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, for abridgment of his constitutional rights during that investigation. Ganek lost that challenge in October 2017.
Shortly after the decisions on Cohen's company SAC and Mathew Martoma, two cases decided earlier setting precedent on insider trading (Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson from Diamondback and Level Global, two firms with ties to SAC) were reversed, in effect reprimanding Bharara's office of zealotry. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Newman overturn was too lenient. The fight for right is ongoing.
Kolhatkar draws the contrast between those working for the government with fewer resources and those sleek white men working for Cohen. In the years after the investigation, some attorneys moved from one side to the other: the New York Times reports
“A day after Lorin L. Reisner announced that he was stepping down as head of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, the law firm Paul Weiss on Thursday named him as a partner in its litigation department.”Paul Weiss supplied Cohen’s legal team. Antonia Apps, the attorney who tried the Steinberg case, went to Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. A high-level FBI investigator, Patrick Carroll, went to Goldman Sachs' compliance department. Amelia Cottrell of the SEC went to the firm where Cohen’s longtime defense counsel, Marty Klotz, worked. Sure, why not? Maybe one day, one of those who know both sides of the street will do the right thing for the right reasons.
Friday, March 23, 2018
It is of endless relief to me that this woman managed an escape from her family, though of course I know how the pain of leaving has scarred her. We all have scars at the end, I want to tell her. It is the ones gotten from life-threatening, abusive behaviors we do not have to accept as normal.
As a memoir, this is simply a brilliant one. Whether or not it is true in all its details is beside the point. Tara herself says there are many different remembrances of conversations and events. She kept a journal that faithfully recorded how she heard things that happened during stressful times in her life. Her version has an internal consistency that is hard to ignore, and since she is the one “coming clean,” as it were, we are inclined to believe her version of events above others. It is also possible to see how a religious mindset could blind one to what actually happened.
Tara Westover lived in a family of anti-government survivalists in northern Idaho. What happened to the children in her family was truly terrible, and exemplifies the definition of delusional in today’s secular society. At a time when our nation has grown to encompass many different religions, races, and ethnicities, Westover’s family, from their perch on a piece of land in northern Idaho, believed in self-reliance and in a single truth, even if it meant sacrifice of the clan. Delusional people sometimes forget that creating a life presents a challenge to one’s set of beliefs, in that each individual comes with free will and a right to life.
Tara recounts instances when her father’s investments in his scrapyard turned out badly, and incomes were strained to the point of breaking but for the ingenuity and generosity of family members determined to help out. But I will have to admit Tara’s descriptions of what her brother and father subjected her to while they were working in the scrapyard nearly blew out my blood pressure. With each sentence she stoked my indignation. At an early age I knew stupidity and exploitation when I saw it, but this could have been because of my own physical and mental weaknesses. Tara lasted longer in that environment because she was so able and strong.
We get very little background on the family before Tara is born. That seems fair: Tara must understand her parents’ story is theirs to tell. Suffice it to say the father may have been an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and bipolar. It appears he didn’t believe in public governance, or people coming together with good intent to solve societal wrongs. He believed in his own modified Mormon version of god and gospel and self-reliance. By itself this could almost be ignored except when he subjected his children to his mad imaginings, many of which were dangerous to their health and wellbeing.
Tara never went to school as a youngster, and she was not home-schooled. Like two of her brothers before her, she read enough to pass the state ACT, after which she attended Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Her professors there were very impressed with her ability to think, and did what they could to advance her education by recommending her to attend Cambridge University in England. It must also be said that a bishop in the church there seemed to understand the obstacles Tara’s family presented by being so resistant to the larger world, and tried to help.
Tara’s professors at Cambridge were likewise impressed with her ability to reason and recommended her for a scholarship to Harvard. There she worked toward her Cambridge degree, looking at the constraints and obligations family ties present when considered in the context of the larger society in which we live, but she could only look at nineteenth-century philosophers. The advancements in thinking in twentieth and twenty-first centuries were too diverse and modern for someone of her religious upbringing to consider.
Nowhere do we get a sense of her understanding of race in our country and around the world. Her father may have been isolated out there in Idaho, but in his isolation he developed attitudes dangerously close to fascism. How has Tara developed her attitudes towards people of color after her upbringing would be interesting. But we don't get to that. She has plenty of other things to share, being something like a stranger in a stranger land, and now able to speak the language.
She is an interesting case study. Perhaps her professors thought so, too. Without a doubt she has a fascinating story and is able to tell it well. I listened to the Random House audio of this book, very beautifully read by Julia Whelan. It was involving, but infuriating that any child would have to withstand that kind of thoughtlessness and carelessness on their own behalf. It undoubtedly gave her some kind of strengths, but angst and self-doubt also. I wish her good luck. It is quite a story.
Below please find an interview of Tara Westover with her colleagues at Cambridge where she earned her doctorate.
Saturday, March 17, 2018
In the future, people will probably mistake the the origin of the phrase ‘the warmth of other suns’ to be this big book on America’s Great Migration, when it fact Wilkerson credits the phrase to a poem of Richard Wright’s that she uses as an epigraph:
"I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown. I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom."The beautiful, elegiac poem expresses regret one had to leave some of one’s roots behind in order to ‘transplant’ elsewhere. Wilkerson interviewed about 1,200 people and did subsidiary research to collect & corroborate enough impressions and remembrances that she felt comfortable in this period and could supply details others forgot.
I'd be willing to bet she used techniques similar to those used by the author of one of my favorite histories, the award-winning Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote Secondhand Time: An Oral History of the Fall of the Soviet Union. Alexievich’s journalistic technique uses the general experience to elucidate the personal, though Wilkerson also did extensive interviews with the three main subjects of her narrative.
The Great Migration covered the period 1915-1970; Wilkerson’s own attention span covers a period of about one hundred years, from 1910-2010. The three different sets of migrants whose lives she uses as examples did not know one another, and all three were alive when she began her research; all three had died before she’d finished. George Starling moving up the eastern seaboard from Florida to Harlem in New York City; Ida May Gladney moved from Mississippi to Chicago, part of the midwest migration; and Robert Foster moved from Louisiana to California, an experience about which I knew the least.
The book is huge with detail. It can’t be rushed, and those who read or listen to it regularly, recognizing it may take weeks to get to it all, may enjoy it best. There is a rhythm to the telling; it is long-form story-telling, and it adheres to an oral tradition. One can certainly make the case that, since Wilkerson conducted interviews for the bulk of her narrative, this is in a long line of family histories passed down orally from generation to generation. The experiences she recounts fills in holes some discover in our own family histories. We can now imagine what the migrants must have encountered.
In charts showing the movement of African Americans from the South to different parts of the country in the last century, Los Angeles and cities in California got only a third or smaller proportion of what Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia settled. Boston and New York were in between those two.
One incident Wilkerson recounted that shook me badly was the story of the attempted integration in the summer of 1951 in Cicero, an all-white town on the southwest border of Chicago. The mob mentality that took over the reason of the so-called white people—and it should be noted this was a broad swath of first- and second-generation European immigrants—when they learned a black couple had rented an apartment is horrifying, terrifying to recount. The couple’s belongings and the apartment were destroyed…on day one. The next three days brought a full-scale riot that needed the National Guard to subdue.
Boston is not specifically mentioned in this history, but the New York experience plays a large part. Wilkerson makes reference to the Northern Paradox, a term coined by the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal:
“In the North, Myrdal wrote, ‘almost everybody is against discrimination in general, but, at the same time, almost everybody practices discrimination in his own personal affairs’—that is, by not allowing blacks into unions or clubhouses, certain jobs, and white neighborhoods, indeed, avoiding social interaction overall.”Considering African Americans apparently occupied approximately 25% of the population in these two cities, I’d have to agree that the discrimination, in Boston at least, is subtle, hidden, denied since most neighborhoods until recently were clearly segregated.
Ida Mae Gladney left Mississippi for Chicago October 14, 1929, and eventually ended up voting for Barak Obama as senator of Illinois. In describing cooking and eating corn bread the way it was made when she was coming up, she says
“Now you put you some butter and some buttermilk on it,” she says, “and it make you want to hurt yourself.”I’ve never heard that phrase before, but it sure covers a number of addictive activities.
In describing Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster’s life in California, we get an indelible picture of the man by the way he remembered the clothing he and his wife wore at eventful moments in their lives.
“He remembered one night in particular. He was wearing a black mohair suit he ordered specifically for the occasion from the tailor who dressed Sammy Davis, Jr., and Frank Sinatra. He wore a black tie with a burgundy stripe, a white tab-collar shirt, gold cuff links, black shoes, black silk socks, and a white handkerchief with his initials, RPF, embroidered in silver.”He doesn't mention it here, but elsewhere he mentions this black mohair jacket has a scarlet silk lining. How can one begrudge a man who is so enthusiastic in his compositions? There is such joy there.
The last individual detailed in this book, George Swanson Starling, was memorable for what he did not accomplish. His family held him back from finishing college, so George married an unsuitable woman and left home for the North.
"It was spite," George would say of the decisions he made at that moment in his life…"That’s why I preach today, Do not do spite," he said. "Spite does not pay. It goes around and misses the object that you aim [at] and goes back and zaps you. And you’re the one who pays for it."A truer lesson was never told.
I used Whispersync to listen/read. Robin Miles narrates and her reading is perfect in pace and clarity. Ken Burns gave an intro to the audio edition which was not reproduced in the kindle version. He says, basically, "This is must-read nonfiction, essential to our understanding of race. I loved this book" and more. We haven’t had this kind of history told in this way before. Allowing this history to inform the construct that is your life will change that life a little bit.
Friday, March 16, 2018
This inspirational child's storybook for ages 5-9 features the beauty of the natural world plus animals and big earth-moving equipment! Even parents are guaranteed to enjoy this one. The story is true, of a scientist who had heard the land upon which he lived once had a creek but had been bulldozed flat to make larger corn fields. The mind boggles at the necessity for this travesty.
He found photographs of the land in the time before and when an old man told him he'd fished the stream for brook trout, the scientist decided to try to find the creek. If it had been there since time immemorial, perhaps it was just waiting to be found.
The gorgeous full-color woodcuts by Claudia McGehee add immeasurably to the exciting story of discovery created by Caldecott winner Jacqueline Briggs Martin. The scientist dug the field, found the creek, built a bed, planted the sides, repopulated the waters that flowed from the head of the spring.
The actual events in this story take place in northeast Iowa. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press for putting so much effort into making this the most beautiful and inspirational storybook published in 2017, surely. Brilliant job, everyone!
This book is two lectures modified and dispensing the understanding of a classicist with regard to “The Public Role of Women,” the very title of the first lecture. My markers are all in the second lecture, delivered in March 2017 and titled “Women in Power.” Mary Beard applies her knowledge of ancient languages and civilizations to uncover for us the origins of our notions of sexuality and power. It is not all she knows. It is merely her opinion of what she knows.
As though in a long, amusing conversation with a friend, Beard argues and then changes her mind as she makes her argument, rethinking her earlier teaching of Aristophanes’ comedic play Lysistrata as not just about girl power—“though maybe that’s exactly how we should now play it.”
I have recently found myself modifying my thinking on #MeToo: I opposed much younger women deciding, precipitously I thought, which behaviors went too far when some we clearly agreed did meet criterion for harassment. Those younger women will probably succeed in modifying men’s behaviors when earlier generations did not. They are the ones who will have to live with the success or failure of their guidelines.
The conclusions Beard shares with us at the end of the second lecture are especially trenchant: that power should be recognized as within each of us—within our reach—if we would only seize that power and exercise it. Power exercised does not have to be attached to celebrity, and perhaps is best if it is not so glorified and so removed from each of us. Beard gives an example of this non-celebrity notion of power by pointing to the three women (whose names many of us still do not know) now credited with beginning the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
If power is attached to celebrity, it is interpreted narrowly, circumscribing and controlling that power. The current structure of public prestige is male-dominated and will forever resist the fundamentally different understanding of power as collaborative and diffuse—not a possession but an attribute or a verb. I am excited by Beard’s acknowledgement of power as something quite different than what we have come to accept, for power is individual, and within each of us.
The dignity we gain in light of that realization is very affirming. It entirely works when thinking of oneself in a democracy, for instance, but also as an employee, family member, a member of any group, sect, or religion. Individuals hold the actual power in a society, and it is only our transfer of attention and currency to celebrities that gives them power. When we notice and state publicly “the emperor has no clothes,” well then…it’s over for the emperor.
Beard wishes she'd had the foresight to defend women's right to be wrong without collapse of women's privileges and rights as leaders, spokespeople. This notion parallels the notion of acceptance of people of color as described by Ibram X. Kendi in his groundbreaking work, Stamped From The Beginning:
"Kendi himself has concluded the only way black people would not be discriminated against in some way is if everyone recognize that blacks are at least as talented or flawed as whites and should be treated accordingly, that is to say, with the same amount of attention and acceptance of their potential talent, as for their potential for error. Anything less is racist."There is more in Beard's manifesto, for instance “if women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is the power we need to redefine rather than the women.” We are reminded that the structures of power may need modification if not dismantling. Beard reminds us there will be winners & losers in this scenario, but these concepts have been a long time coming. I won’t be sorry to see the old ways go.
I loved the little joke Beard included in her discussion of current female leaders being heralded early in 2017 in a headline, “Women Prepare for a Power Grab in Church, Police and BBC.” Beard reminds us that only Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Met, actually succeeded, surely a comment on who is perceived to have the equipment to lead.
Beard begins her first lecture with a reminder of the earliest example of a man exerting control over the right of women to plead her case or to speak in public: a teenaged Telemachus silencing his mother Penelope in the beginning of The Odyssey. The view of women in the western world has followed on from those earliest myths.
Subtle differences in interpretation of the language of those myths is now giving us new ways to look at sexuality, at women and power. That ancient text has been recently translated by a woman, Emily Wilson, for the first time, and the resultant work has differences from earlier versions. It is wonderfully accessible and thrilling to read, so make sure you give it another go round with this new version.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
This book seems too small for all it accomplishes. The quiet watchfulness and introspection of the Prologue tamps down opinion before it develops. We are here to listen, to understand. It is such a quiet read, immediately alert to the tension inherent in a grandson of immigrants policing the border.
This is a beautiful book, a beautiful physical object. Riverhead Books formatted the inside to be a kind of art, using gray pages to separate the sections and lines to guide our eye, delineate our thoughts. We recognize we are privileged to see what an American thinks of the border, an American with reason to care about the migrants, who shares our history and theirs.
The real terror that migrants bring or flee is not hidden; it is one of the first things the border guards encounter. A drug capture is a feather in one’s cap. The people ferrying the drugs are not as important; they are allowed to struggle back to where they came from, or continue onward if they dare. Not much thought is expended in their direction by the border patrol.
Before long, Cantú becomes aware of his own muted, muffled response to the hideousness of the choices facing his human captures. The job itself appears to be a reason why he cannot envision himself in their place. Then we discover Cantú’s stress is coming out by a grinding of his teeth when at rest. He dreams of captures—his response and theirs—and how it could be different.
He moves to a different job, a different state. He watches, in a computer lab, movements in the border area. He researches reasons for population movement, the drug dealing, gang murders, a capture’s history. This knowledge does not abate his nighttime fears. He starts to try to imagine the humanity behind the statistics, quoting the historian Timothy Snyder, “Each record of death suggests, but cannot supply, a unique life….it is for humanists to turn these [deaths] back into people.”
He goes back to El Paso and the Rio Grande and finds himself more confused than ever. “…studying…and reading…international affairs…I had the idea that…the patrol…would somehow unlock the border for me…but…I have more questions than ever before.” Exposure to the violence of the border region gave him a kind of moral injury: “Moral injury is a learned behavior, learning to accept the things you know are wrong.”
In contemplating the migration of individuals from Mexico and Central America to North America, Cantú must examine the horror facing those migrants in their own countries. He gives us a taste of it, leading us to question our own understanding of government, laws, fairness, money, profit, coercion, protection. We realize we do not know the answers to the questions these migrants raise: How are we to live? What do we have to lose?
Cantú leaves the border patrol to think, write, read, study. In trying to make sense of his own history, his recent past, and his future, he takes a job in which he meets a man who becomes his friend. That man, it turns out, is what Americans call an illegal, though he has lived and worked more than thirty years in the United States. All the understanding Cantú learned at the border is put into practice now as he couples his sensitivity and sensibility with experience.
This gorgeous, thoughtful read is replete with references to poets and novelists, as well as to those who write history, philosophy, international affairs. Cantú took time and had the resources to assimilate his feelings about illegal border crossing—the indignity, the futility of it—and he is eloquent in his expression of it.
What I came away with, putting financially-motivated drug traffic aside, was that the movement of individuals is migration, something that is not going to stop because we disapprove. When things get bad enough, people move. Cantú’s title alludes to the water-like quality of the stream, and the possibilities for growth.
Flood. We, and the people of other great nations, should think about restructuring our attitudes to accept the reality of a world in crisis and how that affects us whether we want it to or not. We must look at ourselves and the world, ourselves in the world, to see what we need to do to keep ourselves from moral injury.
Following is an interview of Cantú conducted by author Elliot Ackerman at the Washington, D.C. bookstore, Politics & Prose. The 53-minute interview gave me a different impression of the man: Cantú paradoxically seems younger in person than he does in the book.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
This must have been a difficult book to write. Goldstein almost succeeds in giving us a 360⚬ view of the deindustrialization of one Wisconsin city—Janesville, Paul Ryan’s home town—but the effect is oddly muted. In trying to describe the city’s fortunes in a strictly nonpartisan way, she unfortunately emasculates the place. Her view, while it lives and breathes through the portraits of workers she introduces, does not explain.
The only reason I know that Goldstein’s street-level stories do not explain anything is that I have been curious about, and following, District #1 in Wisconsin for some years now myself, and I came away with a different view of why the queerly upbeat Paul Ryan feels “the stress of DC literally just rolls off me as I…come into town.” If he has his eyes open, he’s lying. Janesville is the most economically depressed small city I have seen in years.
Ryan’s townspeople can’t stand him and have been trying to vote him out of office since 2010. But they can’t manage it because of something Goldstein did not mention: the severe GOP-inspired gerrymander that has turned a blue state red. There is also lots of outside money pouring in to support GOP candidates, which Goldstein did point to when Governor Scott Walker faced recall in 2012 but managed to stay in office.
Goldstein gives valuable background information for the period 2008-2013, but by itself, her work is insufficient to explain Wisconsin’s and the mid-west deindustrialization in general. The reasons for that, I’m afraid, are much more macro and has quite a lot to do with global trends, trade policies, Wall Street, and the “haves” who are anxious to preserve their financial advantages rather than help the generalized “worker class” prepare for a different world.
The GM assembly plant based in Janesville opened in 1919 and had some 7,000 workers at its peak in the 1970s. When it closed its doors in 2008, it was down to some 1,200 regular workers. Auto manufacturers had unionized labor. Unionized wages were higher than non-unionized wages. The book made several points learned only after a couple of years of study:
✦ People working in the plant had middle-class lives they did not want to give up, naturally, when the plant closed. Several buyouts were offered. Those that took the earliest buyouts had better financial outcomes than those who waited hoping the plant would gear back up.
✦ Newly unemployed people who attended Blackhawk Technical School retraining sessions and who graduated with an associates’ degree made less money, on average, than those who did not retrain and found work elsewhere. (Those who retrained made 1/3 less than before; not-retrained made 8% less than before.)
✦ Families came under severe stress, and many broke up, in some cases abandoning school-age children who then became homeless, sleeping on friend's couches. This disregarded population of floaters is not only extremely vulnerable now, but will likely experience trouble adjusting in the future as well.
✦ An online virtual academy for high school students in Janesville, called Arise Virtual Academy, exempted its students from Wisconsin limits on how many hours teenagers are allowed to work, providing an youthful source of--virtually--slave labor for local business behemoths. Teenagers could therefore help their families survive, while straining their own chances to thrive.
✦ Some former GM workers became ‘gypsies,’ working at GM plants in nearby states while their families stayed in Janesville, many because their homes were difficult to sell since the market had dropped.
It is unlikely that a city or town doing well economically would have had so prescient a leader who could have helped the community prepare one’s mindset from receiving a weekly wage to something quite different. After all, why rock the boat? Very few small cities have corporations providing almost the entire income base, but if they did, congressional representatives probably counted their lucky stars rather than worry about the future.
Goldstein does talk a little about Governor Scott Walker's assault on teachers and the teachers' union in 2011, the very people who would be able to help a population come to grips with a changing world. It is difficult to come to any conclusion but that the conservatives in state government think sticks are more effective than carrots when it comes to modifying behaviors. Bad daddy politics.
Goldstein introduces two women who used capital to which they already had access to build up the small sister-city to Janesville, outside of Paul Ryan's District #1 lines, called Beloit. Beloit is now a kind of fiefdom of one billionaire, Diane Hendricks, helped along by Janesville businesswoman and banker Mary Willmer.
This kind of fiefdom investment has taken place in at least two other places also on the border of Paul Ryan’s district, Waukesha and Verona. Ryan sometimes holds meetings in these locations rather than in his own district, where he has declared he will no longer hold public meetings. There are too many protestors.
In Nov 2017, Goldstein was invited to speak at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. She was able to explain her reasons for choosing Janesville to study, her methodology, what she intended to accomplish. The public policy implications of her book will be clear to any reader. I may have wanted a different book, a book that makes a different kind of case.
Tuesday, March 6, 2018
This detailed account of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 was written by two experienced reporters, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, then working for the Wall Street Journal. Their research suggests there is every indication that Clarence Thomas lied when asked if he made lewd remarks to Anita Hill, and there are plenty of people who can attest his general demeanor is in line with Anita Hill’s testimony. I read this book now because of a recent article by Jill Abramson in New York magazine making the case for a Thomas impeachment.
The authors begin with the news that George H.W. Bush promised his political supporters a conservative would be the next nominee to the Supreme Court after David Souter. It almost sounds quaint now, just twenty-five years later, that politicians at the time wished to preserve deniability when it came to appointing ideologues to traditionally sacrosanct areas of government that required evenhandedness. That is certainly over now, when Mitch McConnell last year withheld interviews for Obama’s SCOTUS nominee so that the GOP could wait for a conservative takeover of the executive and judicial branches.
The political behind-the-scenes machinations to appoint a forty-three year-old conservative neophyte to the Supreme Court in 1991 was interesting for what we know now that we did not know then about white people and racism. There was a legal requirement for government agencies and offices to diversify, and Bush had every intention of trying to find a minority or a woman for a place on the bench to replace retiring Thurgood Marshall, but finding a conservative black lawyer was, to say the least, difficult. White people were not considered for the post. But Clarence Thomas calculated and concluded that conservative Republicans were going to give him more opportunities than liberal Democrats. There was so much more competition among the Democrats.
This is all documented, by the way, by speaking with Thomas’ classmates when he was trying to figure out his future. Thomas himself would often go into the story of his upbringing, “dirt poor and neglected,” and although he had help at various stages in his life which allowed him access to the upper echelons of the white world, he forever discounted that help and claimed a kind of self-reliance that does not appear to be objectively true. The first portion of the book deals with Thomas growing up and the next section deals with Anita Hill working with Thomas before the hearings.
Then comes the machinations behind the scenes to get a minority in place for a confirmation. The judiciary committee and the White House didn’t care who it was as long as he/she was a person of color. And this is the sharpest cut of all: Thomas didn’t want to work for government, but had a hard time finding work in the private sector after law school. He definitely did not want to work for any office commonly associated with black people or headed by blacks. He did not want to be an affirmative action selection. He wanted a job unassociated with race.
Every job Thomas got in Washington after law school was racially oriented, i.e., took a job with Missouri’s Republican attorney general Jack Danforth who went to Yale to recruit a minority lawyer, took a top civil rights post at the Education Department, and then moved to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with it’s responsibility for policing racial and other forms of discrimination in the workplace. Thomas was only considered for SCOTUS because he was African American.
The truth is that being the affirmative action hire is nothing to be embarrassed about: all candidates are eligible with good qualifications. The hire of a minority is redressing an imbalance and diversifying for the strength and welfare of the organization. It is requiring attention to racial diversity.
All of this says more about corporate America and top government than about Clarence Thomas; it should be noted that we were (are still?!) at such a rudimentary place when discussing race that many white lawmakers were unwilling to confront Thomas when he called challenges to his nomination a “high-tech lynching.” Even today there would be legislators unwilling to speak up about the inappropriate behaviors of a person of color, unwilling or unable to escape an unstated white guilt to speak credibly on racial justice issues.
Clarence Thomas may have been damaged as a result of his upbringing. He identified deeply with the Richard Wright novels, Native Son and Black Boy. Mayer and Abramson quote Thomas: "these novels of trapped and violent racial rage 'capture[d] a lot of the feelings that I had inside that you learn to repress.'" When speaking of Native Son, bell hooks in Salvation: Black People and Love tells us that
"Wright offered to the world in his protest novel Native Son an image of blackness that made it synonymous with dehumanization, with the absence of feeling. His character Bigger Thomas embodied a lovelessness so relentless it struck a chord of terror in the minds of black activists who had been struggling to counter similar images of blackness emerging from the white imagination.Anita Hill wrote her own book about the hearings from her point of view, called Speaking Truth To Power. This book is a good companion, for while Hill gives her motivations and how things looked to her, Mayer and Abramson cover the whole process from many perspectives in detail.
In his autobiography, Black Boy, Wright dared to tell the world that he believed dehumanization had happened to many black folks, that ongoing racial genocide had left us damaged, forever wounded in the space where we would know love."
I have no idea if it would be possible now to bring a notice of intent to impeach Thomas but I would support it. I feel sure there was cause in 1991 to throw out his nomination but the need to ram it through was too great. Clarence Thomas may be damaged, and for that we can forgive him (and take some responsibility), but we do not need to further subject ourselves to him. It was wrong to put him on the bench, knowingly.
If we cannot get justice done with Clarence Thomas before he leaves the bench of his own accord, we can always take comfort in the fact that history will not be kind to him. He will continue to be reviled and his story told long past his time on earth.
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Saturday, March 3, 2018
Ali Smith pointed me to Olivia Laing—I think she was planning to introduce her at a conference in Edinburgh. I knew nothing about Laing when I opened this book to the essay about Henry Darger,
“the Chicago janitor who posthumously achieved fame as one of the world’s most celebrated outsider artists, a term coined to describe people on the margins of society, who make work without the benefit of an education in art or art history.”It is very creepy and disturbing, the whole story of the three hundred paintings and thousands of pages of writing Darger left behind at his death, about sex and children and abuse and neglect. Laing’s description of it, and her close research into his life, reminded me of the work of New Yorker writer Ariel Levy: one doesn’t really want to read it, but once begun, it is hard to tear oneself away.
This book itself is about lonely people, lonely artists, herself as a lonely person. Such a repellant topic; Laing notes the psychoanalyst Fromm-Reichmann, a contemporary of Freud, writes
“Loneliness seems to be such a painful, frightening experience that people do practically everything to avoid it….Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it.”Exactly, exactly, exactly, I want to say as I turn my attention away. It makes me uncomfortable, suffering from it or not. So why, then, does Laing want to write a book about loneliness?
The truth is, if one can suffer through the sensation of skin-being-sanded while Laing chooses Edward Hopper to discuss during her own period of estrangement, alone in New York City, irreparably separated from her fiancé, her discussion of Hopper’s paintings and his life leave an indelible impression. Hopper met his wife in art school, and they each were forty-one-year-old virgins when they married. The chapter becomes a queerly voyeuristic biography of Hopper, his art, and his journal-writing wife whose painting was so derided by Hopper that she stopped painting and became his model.
When Laing moved from Brooklyn to the Village—she can’t have been so lonely, by the way, that she didn’t just return to England unless she likes a little bit that sensation of sandpaper-on-skin—she turned her gaze on Andy Warhol. At first Laing detested his work but after seeing him struggling to speak in a biopic once, she realized his Pop Art, the repeating images in different colors, was the attempt of a lonely boy to fit in.
"Sameness, especially for the immigrant, the shy boy agonisingly aware of his failures to fit in, is a profoundly desirable state; an antidote against the pain of being singular, alone, all one, the medieval root from which the work lonely emerges. Difference opens the possibility of wounding; alikeness protects against the smarts and slights of rejection and dismissal."Laing does not neglect Valerie Solanas, the shooter who nearly ended Warhol’s life, who was also “drawn to the excessive and neglected.” Solanas’s work on the SCUM Manifesto puts her smack dab in the middle of a resurgent feminist movement, and yet decidedly outside the mainstream headed by Betty Friedan.
Laing provides context to and critiques of the work of Warhol contemporaries, photographer/artists Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, and demonstrates how their work fits in with the alienation developed through loneliness. Laing’s searing chapter on the AIDS epidemic reminds us how the scourge played out in New York, and how it enveloped Warhol and his milieu.
So Laing’s own journey through loneliness becomes a meditation on loneliness expressed through the art of others.
"It was the rawness and vulnerability of [Wojnarowicz’s] expression that proved so healing to my own feelings of isolation: the willingness to admit to failure or grief, to let himself be touched, to acknowledge desire, anger, pain, to be emotionally alive. His self-exposure was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful."Laing’s skill on this difficult subject of outsider art keeps us curious and bearing our discomfort as she leads us to a deeper understanding of our human condition.
"Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city…the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together…What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open…"
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Thursday, March 1, 2018
There was always the chance that the letters between two literary friends wouldn’t be as interesting as their novels. That hasn’t happened, at least to me. On the contrary, I find their thoughts on the current state of Israel, the work of Philip Roth and Franz Kafka, and their own method of imagining their fiction completely absorbing. Thoughtful men on subjects about which we may disagree…
Their letters reflect their novels; that is, Auster is so concrete, sports-minded, explicitly organizing the rooms (cities, countries) in which his characters move, sending articles, being an instigator while Coetzee—sometimes we have difficulty figuring out which place on earth he is speaking of. And yet, his ideas are bigger, deeper, more honed. He appears to be at home on every continent, except perhaps Asia. But as he says, he sleeps better in Europe, in the time zone of his natal South Africa.
The two men are not equally intelligent, nor equal writers, but how would that work, to speak of it among friends? The joy I get at reading what Coetzee is thinking is entirely what this collection of letters is about. Though these ideas and scraps of writing are not curated, his succinctness allows me to see the care with which he marshals his thoughts, and what he worries about as he ages.
There is too much here, in this short book, to point to all that moved me, but within a page, in his first letter addressing the subject of male friendship, Coetzee has reminded us
"...of a remark by the character Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: that one goes to bed with a woman in order to be able to talk to her. Implication: that turning a women into a mistress is only a first step; the second step, turning her into a friend, is the one that matters, but being friends with a woman you haven’t slept with is in practice impossible because there is too much unspoken in the air."In a letter about male friendship, this tiny mention addresses a question I have pondered forever, it seems. Coetzee says further than unlike “love or politics, which are never what they seem to be, friendship is what it seems to be. Friendship is transparent.” Yes, this clarifying definition places this relationship where it belongs: in the light, unashamed, unembarrassed, unrehearsed. Further,
"...the most interesting reflections on friendship come from the ancient world…because in ancient times people did not regard the philosophical stance as an inherently skeptical one, therefore did not take it as given that friendship must be other than it seems to be, or conversely concluded that if friendship is what it seems to be, then it cannot be a fit subject for philosophy."On this subject and in his first letter, Auster doesn’t mesh well with Coetzee’s lead. He writes at much greater length but says less—that men and women can be friends so long as no physical attraction enters the equation. His mind turned instead to “friendship is a component of marriage” and “marriage is above all a conversation, and if husband and wife do not figure out a way to become friends, the marriage has little chance of surviving.” All true, but perhaps not the direction indicated. He does accurately, I think, point out that “the best and most lasting friendships are based on admiration.”
Anyway, Auster proposes a topic—sport—which shows up in a lackadaisical way throughout the series of letters. One gets the sense that it is Coetzee now that will engage but has little real interest in the topic. We learn that Coetzee is an avid bicyclist who travels pretty frequently in Europe by this method, but he worries that he rarely has much to say about his trips afterward, that he is the worst travel writer and reporter ever. Auster points out that Coetzee is not a reporter, after all, but something far more creative.
But I think I understand that worry of Coetzee’s. It is endearing, that he worries. It is why we like him. Towards the end of this book of letters, nearly four years into the experiment of letter-writing, Coetzee came back from his first trip to India with two observations, nothing about color, heat, food, or filth. First, that animals in India, the ones he saw, like pigs, cows, dogs, monkeys, were not treated cruelly but were accepted and tolerated for their habits and characteristics, even for behaviors that intrude upon the sphere of men. He contrasted that to Africa, where animals are treated with contempt and an unthinking cruelty as for a lower form of life.
The second observation he came back with was that some people in India are perilously poor, very close to subsistence living, and yet the reservoir of practical skills, sheer industriousness, and the “intelligent hands” that in any other culture would make them respected artisans, demonstrate the vast potential of only very partially tapped human resources. He says no more about it, but one does get a sense of…is it hope? I may be making his thoughts sound banal, but in their context they are anything but and are more like opening a window to a scene you never expected to see.
Coetzee is older than Auster by seven years, and both men are happily married to long-time spouses. The four seem to get along with one another and every year they would run into one another at a conference or plan to meet up when in the same country. This correspondence covers things they think about while apart.
One final remark of Coetzee’s about the writing of Philip Roth which so closely parallels something I have written about Updike and Irving that I laugh to include it here:
"I don’t find Exit Ghost a particularly notable addition to the Roth canon. I know that Roth relishes the challenge of wringing something fresh out of stock situations, but there is only so much mileage one can get out of the aging male struggle against decay to prove his virility one last time."
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Sunday, February 25, 2018
The first line in Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey, the first by a woman scholar, is “Tell me about a complicated man.” In an article by Wyatt Mason in the NYT late last year, Wilson tells us
“I could’ve said, ‘Tell me about a straying husband.’ And that’s a viable translation. That’s one of the things [the original language] says…[But] I want to be super responsible about my relationship to the Greek text. I want to be saying, after multiple different revisions: This is the best I can get toward the truth.”Oh, the mind reels. This new translation by Emily Wilson reads swiftly, smoothly, and feels contemporary. This exciting new translation will surprise you, and send you to compare certain passages with earlier translations. In her Introduction, Wilson raises that issue of translation herself: How is it possible to have so many different translations, all of which could be considered “correct”?
Wilson reminds us what a ripping good yarn this story is, and removes any barriers to understanding. We can come to it with our current sensibility and find in it all kinds of foretelling and parallels with life today, and perhaps we even see the genesis of our own core morality, a morality that feels inexplicably learned. Perhaps the passed-down sense of right and wrong, of fairness and justice we read of here was learned through these early stories and lessons from the gods. Or are our eyes changing the story to fit our sensibility?
These delicious questions operate in deep consciousness while we pleasure in learning more about that liar Odysseus, described again and again as wily, scheming, cunning, “his lies were like truth.” He learned how to bend the truth at his grandfather’s knee, we learn late in the telling, and the gods exploited that talent when they helped him out. It served him well, allowing him to confuse and evade captors throughout his ordeal, as well as keep his wife and father in the dark about his identity until he could reveal the truth at a time of maximum impact.
There does come a time, inevitably perhaps, when people react cautiously to what is told them, even to the evidence their own eyes. The gods can cloud one’s understanding, it is well known, and truth is suspected in every encounter. These words Penelope speaks:
"Please forgive me, do not keepParticularly easy to relate to today are descriptions of Penelope’s ungrateful suitors like Ctesippius, who "encouraged by extraordinary wealth, had come to court Odysseus’ wife." Also speaking insight for us today are the phrases "Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight" and "Arms themselves can prompt a man to use them."
bearing a grudge because when I first saw you,
I would not welcome you immediately.
I felt a constant dread that some bad man
would fool me with his lies. There are so many
dishonest, clever men..."
There is a conflicted view of women in this story: "Sex sways all women’s minds, even the best of them," though Penelope is a paragon of virtue, managing to avoid temptation through her own duplicitousness. She hardly seems a victim at all in this reading, merely an unwilling captor. She is strong, smart, loyal, generous, and brave, all the qualities any man would want for his wife.
We understand the slave girls that Odysseus felt he had to “test” for loyalty were at the disposal of the ungrateful suitors who, after they ate and drank at Penelope's expense, often met the house girls after hours. Some appeared to go willingly, laughing and teasing as they went, and were outspoken about their support of the men they’d taken up with. Others, we get the impression from the text, felt they had no choice.
Race is not mentioned but once in this book, very matter-of-factly, though the darker man is a servant to the lighter one:
"…[Odysseus] had a valet with him,Odysseus’ tribulations are so terrible, but appear to be brought on by his own stubborn and petulant nature, like taunting the blinded Cyclops from his own escaping ship. Cyclops was Poseidon’s son so the behavior was especially unwise, particularly since Odysseus’s own men where yelling at him to stop. Later, that betrayal of the men’s best interests for his own childish purpose will come back to haunt Odysseus when the men suspect him of thinking only of himself--greediness--and unleash terrible winds by accident, blowing them tragically off course in rugged seas.
I do remember, named Eurybates,
a man a little older than himself,
who had black skin, round shoulders, woolly hair,
and was his favorite our of all his crew
because his mind matched his."
We watch, fascinated, as the gods seriously mess Odysseus about, and then come to his aid. One really gets the sense of the gods playing, as in Athena’s willingness to give Odysseus strength and arms when fighting the suitors in his house, but being unwilling to actually step in to help with the fighting. Instead, she watched from the rafters. It’s hard not to be just a little resentful.
Wilson’s translation reads very fast and very clearly. There always seemed to be some ramp-up time reading Greek myths in the past, but now the adventures appear perfectly accessible. Granted, there are some names you’ll have to figure out, but that’s part of being “constructively lost,” as Pynchon has said.
A book-by-book reading of this new translation will begin March 1st on the Goodreads website, hosted by Kris Rabberman, Wilson’s colleague at the University of Pennsylvania. To prepare for the first online discussion later this week, Kris has suggested participants read the Introduction. If interested readers are still not entirely convinced they want this literary experience now, some excerpts have been reprinted in The Paris Review.
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Friday, February 23, 2018
The subtitle of this collection is 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women, and it is beautifully done. The short passages cover every continent and every race, religion, and sexuality…that is, the stories are about girls and women with lesbians and transgender individuals identifying as female included. It is ravishingly interesting.
Each short passage is a tightly written biography suitable for 9-14 year-olds, informative, and inspiring. Many unusual job descriptions and lifelong purpose are described, expanding our horizons about the scope of what is possible. As an adult, I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did nor enjoy it as much.
This book is about rebels. It challenges us to think again about what we admire and what we don't...and why. It is a fantastic teaching tool. I can imagine a mother reading an entry alongside her preteen (of either sex, by the way) and discussing it for a short while so that the implications of each success sink in: "Why would that person be considered a rebel?" "What do you think about what that person did?" "Do you know anyone who has done things like this?" The mother is going to recognize some of the names and so can add whatever backstory is not in the book.
A few examples from the stories are
✦ Inventor Ann Makosinski, a fifteen year-old Canadian who won first prize in Google Science Fair for inventing a flashlight that doesn’t need batteries, wind, or sun--just body heat.Included with each biography is a full page color representation of the subject, and a quote of something they said or wrote. Next to the short bio of Misty Copeland, for instance, is a drawing of her in flight during a ballet performance with a quote that reads, “Dance found me.”
✦ Amna Al Haddad, weight lifter from the United Arab Emirates. She was a journalist and discovered she really enjoyed exercising! She began to work out in a gym with weights for the first time in her life as an adult. She was good at it and began training for the Olympics.
✦ Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist who was murdered for reporting on the truth of what she saw in the brutal civil war in Chechnya.
✦ Jane Goodall is among the women to emulate for having her own mind and studying a subject so deeply that she became the expert.
✦ Hayshepsut was an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled Egypt long before Cleopatra became Queen. Records of her were destroyed after her death, but archeologists were able to piece together a record of her successful rule, the first (and only?) female pharaoh.
The authors, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, studied in Italy and the United States where they founded Timbuktu Labs, a children’s media innovation lab. What’s that? you may well ask. The authors define the mission of Timbuktu as committed to “redefining the boundaries of children’s media through a combination of thought-provoking content, stellar design, and cutting-edge technology.” They designed the first iPad magazine for children. The start-up has created mobile apps and creative content for users in more than 70 countries.
It’s more than just new. It’s exciting. The first edition of this book was published in 2016. Since then it has gone through multiple reprintings, and in 2017 Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2 was published. There are apparently also coloring books, temporary tattoos, and posters that go along with the books and can be purchased separately. It’s become an industry, with good reason. If you have a girl in the family in the target age range, check it out. Just when you thought your girls were too old for bedtime stories, this may bring it all back.
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Thursday, February 22, 2018
I never read this book when it was first published in 1996, but it was required reading in the high school of the town where I lived after publication. In fact, I have the Tenth Anniversary edition of this book and in the Afterword, McBridge tell us by the tenth anniversary over two million copies had sold worldwide, translated into more than twenty languages, serialized in the New York Times, and studied by thousands of students each year in literature, sociology, history and creative writing classes.
What strikes me now, reading it twenty-two years later, is the parallel between James McBride’s white mother and Trevor Noah’s black one. Both women crossed race lines romantically and tried to give their mixed children the best possible education within their reach. The kids didn’t take advantage in the ways their mothers had hoped, but the love the mothers had for their children did magic and something about the striving stuck. iIn his Afterword McBride tells us that may be the reason the work resonated so widely: more families than not have some mix somewhere in their family trees, and they relate strongly to this history. Details change but the basic struggle remains the same.
McBride, along with his eleven brothers and sisters, is multi-talented. Everyone in the family learned to play an instrument or sing, tell stories or draw. James’ special skills are telling a story and playing music, and all his life he moved between the two, getting hired and leaving one or the other, then starting a new book and playing music for diversity and cash. It is fascinating to me that kind of rounded life always seemed enough for him; he didn’t get caught in the racket of making money for its own sake.
One sister, Helen, left home early and precipitously. The kind of rough-and-tumble upbringing the family experienced doesn't work for everyone. Some of us are simply more sensitive and require a softer hand. It can be traumatic to be in such a large, rambunctious group, whatever James' experience was. At least he noticed, and mentioned it.
Since most of you reading this will be familiar with this book, I will just quickly point out a few things I admired. His process of getting the story from his mother was kind of ingenious. Plenty of families will have the experience of bumping up against their parents desire to keep some areas of their life private, with the result that the whole doesn’t make as much sense as it should. If I am not mistaken, McBride worked on this story for fifteen years at least, or at least he dreamed about working on it. He had a job working for the Boston Globe right out of college when a Mother’s Day piece he wrote ran to huge acclaim. To expand it, he had to convince his mother to tell her story…but it was years and years before she dropped the last veils.
Ruthie, or Rachel as she was known growing up, was unhappy about leaving her own family, but realized she had no other option. It must have been such a wrenching experience for everyone, that time of giving an ultimatum and having it accepted. But Ruthie was looking forward to living with black people because “they did not judge.” She apparently never changed her mind about that.
Yes, the book could be studied for lots of reasons, but it is a great example of how to write a memoir that doesn’t feel past. It feels as though it is all happening now, or close enough to it to still have fragments of the past showing up in the present. I wonder about that…how he did that, what he was thinking, what the struggle was, and whether or not it was heavily directed by an editor. I don’t think it was, actually, because no one could come up with that kind of structure without it being integral to the material and the creation process.
But McBride does this kind of brilliant sleight of hand in his other works as well. And reading this has given me some insight into the John Brown character he drew for us in National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. McBride’s narrator Onion appeared to have a real affection for Brown, despite recognizing the man was bonkers. He wasn’t condescending. I couldn’t quite figure that out when I read it the first time. I think I might get it now.
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Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Ali Smith wrote this book fast, and I think that is how she intends us to read it, at least at first. We slow down when her images and meanings start to coalesce on the page and we suspect there is much more to this than the twitter-like, depthless sentences that don’t seem like they are adding up to anything. Afterwards, an image emerges. What is more suited to tweeting than a Canada warbler?
The story, as such, is that a young man breaks up with his girlfriend Charlotte right before a Christmas he’d wanted to bring her to his mum’s house to introduce her to his mother. He finds a substitute girl, who happens to be waiting at a bus stop, rather than go through the humiliation of saying he no longer had a girlfriend. He pays her—Lux she is called, though he’d never asked—to stay the three days of the holiday.
Art grew in the course of this book into a grander vision of himself. He writes about nature, the churn of seasons, in a blog he calls Art in Nature. Though he rarely writes anything political, he is thinking about making his work a little more political, like the “natural unity in seeming disunity” of snow and wind, “the give and take of water molecules,” and “the communal nature of the snowflake.” He, Art, is not dead at all, though he is being crushed by his ex-girlfriend Charlotte on Twitter.
Charlotte is pretty clear-eyed:
The people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote, she said, and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one…the people in power were self-servers who’d no idea about and felt no responsibility towards history…like plastic carrier bags…damaging to the environment for years and years after they’ve outgrown their use. Damage for generations.Plastic carrier bags? This is where Smith shines, making her argument so clear and relatable and yet so absurd. She’s funny. She’s right and wrong at the same time, like most of us. Like Art. Smith draws environmental degradation, suggesting chemical (nuclear?) drift in the air can settle like snow, like ash, like slow poison on our lives. She compares the influx of refugees fleeing for their lives in the Mediterranean to exhausted holidaymakers using their friends’ recommendations on the ‘best places to stay.’
Many images float around this book, inviting us to make connections: Iris-eye, art-Art, stone with a hole in it-eye, stone with the weight and curvature of a breast-Mother Nature…once we begin, we start looking for these parallels everywhere. Lux— she had some kind of luxurious brain, a luxurious education studying what she wanted (like Shakespeare, violin, human nature), and the luxury of floating through the world unencumbered and unafraid.
Lux is an out-of-body experience, an angel who appears and disappears, a Canada warbler blown off course. Lux is grace. Lux brings the two sisters together and reminds them of their shared history, of love, of the importance of struggling to create bonds. Lux tries to convince Art to stay after the three-day Christmas holiday to talk, late at night, to his mother. At first he refuses, but when Lux says she will help, he looks forward to it.
Soph, Art’s mother, is not crazy but prescient, depressed, and old. The word Sophia in ancient Greek and early Christian times meant wisdom, and clever, able, intelligent. Iris, the sister from whom Soph was estranged, is not a religious do-gooder but is targeting critical needs to save what’s best of the human race. She is named for Iris, the Wind-Footed Messenger of the Gods. Her presence signifies hope.
Smith is also concerned with truth, and at some point Lux points to the notion that the truth of a thing may be confused with what we believe to be true. Is there objective truth? This question has been argued since time immemorial. It is back with a vengeance, and must be adjudicated daily, moment-by-moment within each of us.
Art in Nature continues to exhibit itself throughout the novel: a female British MP is barked at by the grandson of Winston Churchill, who is also an MP. He says it was meant as a friendly greeting, she accepts the non-apology. Smith interprets this incident as snow melting on one side of furrowed ground in slanted winter sun. It turns out the stuff Art writes in his blog material is invented. Lies, one could say, but close enough to real to sound remembered. This novel has a lot to do with art and politics and what the difference is between them.
& th diff dear Neph is more betwn artist and politician—endlss enemies coz they both knw THE HUMAN will alwys srface in art no mtter its politics, & THE HUMAN wll hv t be absent or repressed in mst politics no mtter its art x IreAli Smith—and this is only the second novel of hers I have read—is a skilled interpreter of our lives. She is involved in the struggle with us, and has enough understanding to recognize #MeToo began with the Access Hollywood tape; the rest, on both sides of the Atlantic and around the globe, is fallout. She doesn’t want us to lose hope, but recognizes the route to betterment is long and arduous, which is why she occasionally blows a Canada warbler off course in the middle of winter to thrill us with what is possible.
I note Recorded Books and narrator Melody Grove won Audiofile Magazine's coveted Earphones Award for "conveying every nuance in the second movement of Ali Smith's Seasonal Quartet." Sounds like it would be a wonderful experience, to listen to this marvelous book speaking of a very dark time in all our lives.
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Monday, February 19, 2018
People of every race are going to read this book—at least I hope they are. It is not written just for people still denying that racism exists in America today, but for people who know it does but do not recognize the myriad ways it manifests. Oluo writes so clearly and simply, this book just a pleasure to read, despite addressing emotionally sensitive material. It is so well-conceived and executed that one could conceivably use it for group discussion, one or two chapters a meeting, talking over what she has presented.
Those discussions can be within one's own group, and need not include people outside of one's race unless they want to be there, e.g. white people should be talking to white people. We have a lot to discover about ourselves, our culture, how our political and economic systems affect racist ideas. She gives us the tools to begin that work, and suggests that we not make black people the sounding boards for our own anxieties—anxieties about how we are perceived, or mistakes we may have made or…whatever. It's not about us.
Oluo’s book builds on earlier books on this theme in the best way possible: You Can’t Touch My Hair by podcaster Phoebe Robinson, and Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, were both enormously helpful in raising some of the issues Oluo addresses with such clarity. Oluo organizes the material so that we are focused on behaviors or questions we will recognize if we have thought about these issues at all, such as "How do I talk to my mother about racist jokes she makes?" "Is police brutality really about race?" "What are microaggressions?" "Is it race or class that separates us?" "What is intersectionality?" "I was called out for being racist but I don’t know what I did wrong."
Oluo suggests ways to approach these questions, and tells us what is not okay. She says there are basic rules, which we might understand to be immutable rules:
--It is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race.
--It is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
--It is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affects people of color.
While Oluo will concede that in the context of the points made above, “just about everything is about race…” Pause here. This is such a critical point that is too easily missed. White people do not generally talk about race, do not think about race because they are in a white supremacist society. Understand this to mean that white is privileged in our society, and until recently was the largest population group, using their own means of measuring “white.” White is a race, like other races. We just haven’t had to think about it as such.
Oluo goes on to say “…almost nothing is about race.” Pause again. That would be true also. Race doesn’t even show up genetically. White Americans have more genetic difference with other Europeans than we do with Black Americans. It’s culture and context that rubs us differently. But Oluo goes through all this carefully, spending some time defining what racism is. She warns us that talking about race will make us uncomfortable. We need to forgive ourselves if we make mistakes, but we also have to forgive others who are trying to understand what they do not now understand.
“You’re going to screw this up,” Oluo tells us, but you can prepare, and try to lessen the amount of times you get it wrong. She helps by talking this out. This is not easy stuff. Racial justice activist Debby Irving agrees. Just when we think we understand what privilege is, we might discover we don’t know how to explain it, or give examples of it, or even recognize it immediately. We need to change something so basic as our vocabulary, and everyone who has learned a new language knows how hard that can be. Our behaviors are often habituated, learned when we were children, and some need to change. Change is hard, but not impossible.
Oluo sticks with the practical: ways she has lived with and uncovered her own lack of understanding around race--for instance, not making enough effort to understand what underlies the term Asian American. That particular chapter, “What is the model minority myth?” is enormously informative. We learn the large number of sub-groups fall under the category of Asian American, and how they are doing in our economy.
It seems hard to believe this book came out only a month ago, in January 2018. I am so thrilled there is such useful material now to help us with our own conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about race. I recommend buying this one. You will be grateful for this resource. You will probably need to refer to it again and again, or pass it around, when your conversations raise some of the questions Oluo deals with here.
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