Monday, April 24, 2017

Rolling Blackouts, by Sarah Glidden

Sarah Glidden
I heard about Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts:  Displatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq on NPR's Book Concierge.  Glidden traveled to the Middle East with some friends who work as independent journalists.  They spent several weeks talking to displaced Iraqis and other individuals and trying to think of ways to pitch stories to news organizations back home.  They work on two main stories - one about Dan, an Iraqi veteran who is returning to the region for the first time and wants to talk to Iraqis who lived through the war, and one about Sam, an Iraqi refugee who found his way to Seattle with his family, somehow ended up in the 9/11 Commission report, and was deported back to Iraq.

Much of Glidden's story, though, focuses on her journalist friends, and the work they do.  It's no secret that news organizations have significantly reduced their foreign staff, and that reporting has suffered as a result.  There are very few reporters abroad with long-term contacts, and so they cannot report on longer-term, slower burn stories.  We understand the world less because of it.  Governments are more corrupt because of it.  Reporters are less safe because of it.  We are all less accountable to each other, from individuals to governments to multi-national corporations, because of it.

Glidden's book highlights some of this loss to us.  She shows us an Iraq that suffered through war but still has culture, friendship, delicious food, and beauty.  Some Iraqis are happy that Americans came, mostly because they suffered deeply under Saddam Hussein.  Others hate Americans for ruining their way of life.  I really enjoyed the way Glidden's friends shared stories of Iraqis in multiple countries to provide a broader perspective.  I also liked the way Glidden used light, bright colors in her art to humanize the experience of so many people whose lives have been upended so completely.  Not only the Iraqi refugees themselves, but the lives of the Turks and Syrians as well.

It was particularly chilling to read the Syrian section of this book, as I was reading it while the US bombed Syria after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.  The book is set some years ago, I think before the full horrors of the Syrian war.  Now I realize just how much the world missed by not having reporters in Syria to cover Assad, so that it felt as though the whole war came out of nowhere.  (At least, it felt that way to me.  No doubt others were better informed.)

I was less enamored with the story around Dan, the Iraqi war veteran.  I feel like his return to Iraq and his opacity in sharing his feelings and whether his feelings about the war and his participation in it took up an outsize amount of the story.  In a way, it felt very "Yes, of course, focus on the white guy's story because that would be the most compelling to everyone."  I don't think that is fair to Glidden's reporter friends, but it seemed like Glidden wanted to focus the most on that story.  She even ends that story arc quite dramatically, with something like, "Sarah never interviewed Dan again" as the only words on a whole page.  Which makes it sound like either Sarah or Dan died, but neither of them did, and they continued to stay friends and talk to each other, she just didn't interview him again about the war.

That aside, though, I really appreciated Glidden's book and her focus on how journalists make decisions on stories, angles, ethics, and so many other things.  It was very illuminating, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you enjoy Joe Sacco's work or Brooke Gladstone's The Influencing Machine.  (Teresa, I'm looking at you!)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Whatever happened to interracial love?

I heard about Kathleen Collins and her collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, in the New York Times Book Review, where I get many of my reading recommendations (and which has gotten better at reviewing books by people who are not white and male).  Kathleen Collins was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but most of her artistic work (films, plays, short stories) was produced in the 1980s.  Her short stories were, for the most part, never published.  Her daughter discovered them in a trunk.

It's always hard to judge artistic talent by stories left unpublished in a trunk, mainly because it's hard to know if these stories were complete or if the author still wanted to work on them.  But the romance of the whole situation is just too much to pass up!  Undiscovered author!  A trunk!  The perfect cultural moment!  Stories on race, gender, sexuality!  It's a lot of awesomeness.  If it could happen for Emily Dickinson, can't it happen for other people, too?

I think it can, sometimes.  But sometimes the collection can also be pretty inconsistent.  I think that's true for Kathleen Collins.  There is so much wit in her stories, so much that speaks to how fascinating and vibrant she must have been, how much fun she must have been to talk to.  But there are other stories that feel unrefined or directionless.  Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is more a collection of what was great potential, lost too early (Collins died of cancer in 1988 at age 46). 

The stories are mainly pretty short, and race is alluded to in almost all of them.  One story is told from the point of view of a man describing the perfect family, a close-knit unit that was beautiful, intelligent, and got along well.  But then cracks start to show, and it turns out the family's future is not nearly as happy as one would hope.  In another, a woman loyally sends letters and gifts to her husband in prison.  When he gets out and moves to a foreign country (without her), she finds peace in a small, rural home and some new friends.  In "The Uncle," the narrator relates the story of his uncle, who is ill and whom many describe as lazy for his whole life.  But the narrator, upon reflection, thinks that his uncle was a hero, just for surviving..
But his weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth brimmed potent to overflowing in the room, and I began to weep for him, weep tears of pride and joy that he should have so soaked his life in sorrow and gone back to some ancient ritual beyond the blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities; so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended, some stumbling block put in his way for the sake of trial and endurance; so refused to strike out against it, go down in a blaze of responsibilities met and struggled with.  No.  He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there he was the bravest man I had ever known.
There was silver and gold in all the stories collected here, even if all of them didn't stick with me.  So much about how difficult life can be when people expect so little of you, or treat you like you are less than what you know yourself to be.  So much about the struggle to understand your parents or your children, about competing priorities for different generations and what they decide is worth fighting for.  It's a lovely collection and well worth seeking out.  Not only because it's amazing to discover the unknown work of a feminist civil rights cultural icon, but because the stories are quite good, too.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Women Culture and Politics

Angela Y Davis
Women Culture and Politics is the first Angela Y Davis book I've ever read.  For those of you who may not know, Angela Davis is a hugely influential feminist communist activist.  She was very active in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, fought hard against Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California and when he was president, and continues to serve as a voice of resistance and strength.

Women Culture and Politics is a collection of Davis' essays and speeches from the 1980s and 1990s.  I am not sure if it is the best book to start with, but I think this is mostly due to the format.  I admit that my grasp of history from the 1980s and 1990s is not quite as extensive as I would like, and Davis' essays are very much commentary on the times.  I wish that there was an introduction to the collection as a whole or to each specific essay so that I had a better grasp and understanding of the context in which she was writing the essay or delivering the speech.  That would have helped me a lot to fully understand Davis' points.

[Side note:  That said, I really need to learn more about the entire Reagan presidency.  Does anyone have a book they recommend for that?  I feel like Reagan comes up a LOT these days, and I would like to understand more of our history with Russia and Latin America and all the rest.  So, please let me know if there is any book you think would be a good one to get some background!]

While some of the context of Davis' points was lost on me, a concerning number of points were still very relevant.  I suppose in the grand scheme of things, 30 years is not so long a time in which to make real change in society.  But it still feels depressing. 

One thing Davis talked about in her essays comes up a lot in liberal discussion these days.  And that is identity politics.  I have been very up and down on identity politics and the impact of identity politics on our election and on the way people describe themselves now.  I 100% believe that people should feel comfortable being their truest, best selves, and that they should feel safe enough to be open about who they are.  But I also can feel exhausted by the number of identifiers everyone feels the need to use these days.  And I am very concerned by the way identity politics has led to white nationalism and supremacy.  Davis' approach to this is that everyone should come together. 
"...we must begin to merge that double legacy in order to create a single continuum, one that solidly represents the aspirations of all women in our society.  We must begin to create a revolutionary, multiracial women's movement that seriously addresses the main issues affecting poor and working-class women."
This comes up again and again in Davis' writing, this idea that rich, white women seem to fight a completely different battle than working class women of color, and that they often forget to fight for the rights of people who are not as well off as they are.  This is still relevant today, and it came up a lot with the Women's March on Washington and it continues to come up with women's rights now when we talk about Planned Parenthood (which we seem to talk about all the time).  It continues now as people obsess over the rural white vote.  I feel like there must be a way to talk about the issues in ways that are less divisive but that doesn't make people feel left behind.  But do we all just jump too quickly now to take offense, to say, "What about me?  You mentioned everyone's suffering but mine!"  And instead of giving a person the opportunity to go back and consider and grow, we assume the worst and shame the person and then the person gets so nervous about saying anything wrong, but doesn't actually change his/her inner thoughts.  Just hides them.  And then we are where we are.

There is a LOT in this book that is amazing.  I folded so many pages down to note down quotes.  It would be too much for me to share them all with you, so I recommend that instead, you just read the book and feel all the feels and become a Davis fangirl.  I plan to read much more by her, and I look forward to the way she will challenge my thinking.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Association of Small Bombs

Book Cover
Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs is one of those books that is very popular with critics.  It's also one of those books that you read and know that is it incredibly well-written and has a really strong message.  It tackles huge issues in a very personal way.  I am very glad that I read it, but I don't think I will read it again because it is so profoundly sad.

The Association of Small Bombs starts with a "small" terrorist attack in New Delhi in 1996.  Two brothers are among the victims.  Their friend, Mansoor, survives with a strain in his wrist.

The book follows the brothers' parents, Mansoor and his parents, and the terrorist who committed the attack (and the progress of a terrorist in the making) over the next several years.  We see the way the parents come together and then drift apart.  The way Mansoor's parents are overprotective and then feel like they are losing their son.  The way Mansoor first feels so lucky to have survived and works hard to make the most of it, and then slowly loses that momentum.

While I found this book quite depressing, there were things that I also found very valuable in it.  I appreciated that Mahajan focused on a "smaller" terrorist act in India vs on a "major" one in the west.  Just as Americans seem to have become inured to mass shootings (which is horrifying), much of the world seems to think that terrorist attacks in certain parts of the world are totally normal.  But Mahajan shows readers that senseless violence is never normal to the people who experience it and have to deal with its consequences, no matter how regularly it may happen.  He shows how difficult it can be for parents to recover from the randomness of an act, to rethink so many decisions, to see their lives go down a completely different path than the one they had set out on themselves.  Similarly, he shows how survivors can continue to suffer even when it seems like they have minor injuries.  When you consider how many of these small bombs have detonated in the world, and how many lives they have upended, you can imagine that there are countless people whose lives have been profoundly changed by acts committed by complete strangers who don't care about them at all.

I also appreciated that Mahajan did not focus on an extremist Muslim's hatred of western influence.  He focused on an internal Indian issue - Kashmir.  This is important because so many people (*white* people, mainly) seem to think that the only victims of terrorists are westerners and that terrorists are all brown people against white people.  This is not the case.  Terrorists and their victims are of all races and beliefs and walks of life.  It may be difficult for some readers to understand the political background that informs this part of the book (I certainly had some trouble), but I don't know that it matters - what matters is that people believe in something enough to commit desperate acts in its honor.  Or they feel trapped that they have no other option.

And that was the last thing about this book that I appreciated.  It really takes you inside the mind of someone as he veers from a path of non-violence to one of extreme action.  It's difficult to see this happen, especially with a character you liked.  But it's important, too, to understand that people are motivated to actions by many different things.  It's not always a belief in extremism.  A lot of times, people feel trapped or forced into an action.  Or they feel they have no one to talk to, they have no real future.  That's not to justify committing an act of violence, but more to show that circumstances can inform our life decisions more than we are often willing to admit.

But, as I said earlier, this is a tough book to read.  It's supposed to be a tough book.  Make sure you have a chaser for it. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Charlie LeDuff's Detroit:  An American Autopsy is a book I've had on my list to read for a while, I think since I finished grad school.  As is typical for me, I bought the book on Kindle and then promptly forgot about it.  I finally read it while I was on a work trip.  I never got over my jet lag, so I stayed up late several nights in a row with Charlie LeDuff.

Detroit:  An American Autopsy is a pretty good title for what this book is about.  LeDuff is a reporter who moves back to his hometown of Detroit in the early 2000s to write for the local paper.  In his reporting and in this book, he writes about how Detroit went from being one of the biggest cities in the United States, with a population of almost 2 million people, to one of the most hollowed-out; today, it is home to less than 700,000 people.  It is one of the most rapid declines in population of a city ever.  A lot of this is due to the rise and fall of the American auto industry, but a lot of it is due to other factors as well.

If you've followed this blog for some time, or at least since the last presidential election, you know that I've been reading several books in an attempt to better understand the current state of our country and world.  I did not read Detroit for this reason specifically, but on reflection, I think it does an excellent job of explaining why someone might vote for Donald Trump.  Michigan is one of those states that used to be strongly Democratic and then swung right for Trump in this past election.  LeDuff's book gives a very compelling case as to why that might be, even though it was written in 2013.  To LeDuff, as Detroit goes, so goes America.  Detroit paralleled the country's rise and fall more than any other city, tied so closely to the auto industry.  As America rose in prominence and people bought more cars, the city went sky high, with beautiful (seriously stunning) architecture, world class museums and strong worker's rights.  Then came the 1960s and white flight.  And then came the 1980s and all the decades that followed - foreign competition in the auto industry, corruption and incompetence in government and industry, and a rapid decline in the power and influence of labor unions.  Jobs moved elsewhere.  But, as one person in the book put it, "I guess when you get down to it, it's simple... The man took his factory away, but he didn't take the people with him."

LeDuff's book is excellently written in a Sam Spade, hard-boiled detective fiction fashion.  He writes in exactly the way you would expect someone from Detroit to talk - frank, no sugarcoating.  His deep love for the city and its people is obvious, but so, too, is his anger and frustration with the way its leaders keep taking and don't give anything back.  Detroit is a city that has been decimated and abandoned by those who claim to work to improve it, and LeDuff is sick of it.

While reading this book, I often wondered to myself whether LeDuff voted for Clinton or Trump in this past election.  He spends a lot of time with police and firemen and union workers who are fed up with what their jobs and lives have become.  The firemen in particular are angry because arson happens regularly in Detroit; they risk their lives for other people to get the benefit of fraudulent insurance claims.  And their anger seems very well-justified, they don't get much support from the city at all, as the city has no money.  Similarly, both of LeDuff's brothers work blue-collar jobs that pay hardly anything at all.  They struggle to support their families.  You can see very well how people in situations such as this one would be excited by a promise to Make America Great Again.  (Especially if you are able to push aside/ignore all the horrible things Trump said about anyone who is not white/male/straight, etc.)  In fact, I would say that this book made me understand a person's decision to vote for Trump and his message more than any other book I have read on the topic (or around the topic).  The desperation and frustration and anger that people feel, their depression that they'll never get out of a cycle, that no one sees or cares about their problems - it's all palpable.   "Desperation," he quotes someone saying, "feels like someone's reaching down your throat and ripping out your guts."

LeDuff has a lot of scorn and derision for the American auto industry and many people in Detroit's government (all of whom deserve derision and scorn).  And he comes across as quite cynical and jaded and rightfully angry.  For example:
When I had arrived back home the previous winter, Local 235 here was on strike.  It was a cold, bitter dispute, complete with old-school fires in the oil drums.  The unionized workers, numbering nearly two thousand at the time, lost  They gave in to deep wage cuts, in some cases from $28 an hour to $14, in exchange for keeping their jobs.  Apparently it was not enough.
In contrast, Dick Dauch, the CEO and chairman of American Axle, was given an $8.5 million bonus by his board of directors after the strike and gave assurances to the workers and the city of Hamtramck that he would keep production there.  It was lip service.
And this is where many Americans are frustrated, including the "liberal elites."  No one thinks that math is okay, but no one seems willing to actually do anything about it.

LeDuff also has a great capacity for kindness and compassion and empathy that comes through just as clearly.  He writes beautiful stories about people, he cares so much for his city, he wants so badly for the world (particularly America, and especially Detroit) to be a fairer place.

I really loved reading this book and recommend it very highly.  It focuses on Detroit, but I think it would appeal to anyone who lives in America's Rust Belt or anywhere now where people are desperate for jobs and money to come into the region.  I'll leave you with this (long-ish) quote that had me close to tears, and that I suspect will have the same effect on you:
It would be easy to lay the blame on McNeal for the circumstances in which she raised her sons.  But is she responsible for police officers with broken computers in their squad cars, firefighters with holes in their boots, ambulances that arrive late, a city that can't keep its lights on and leaves its vacant buildings to the arsonist's match, a state government that allows corpses to stack up in the morgue, multinational corporations that move away and leave poisoned fields behind, judges who let violent criminals walk the streets, school stewards who steal the children's milk money, elected officials who loot the city, automobile executives who couldn't manage a grocery store, or Wall Street gifters who destroyed the economy and left the nation's children with a burden of debt while they partied it up in Southampton?
Can she be blamed for that?
"I know society looks at a person like me and wants me to go away," she said.  "'Go ahead, walk in the Detroit River and disappear.'  But I can't.  I'm alive.  I need help.  But when you call for help, it seems like no one's there.  It feels like there ain't no love any more."

Are you interested in learning more about this subject?:
I put up loads of links at the end of my reviews on Strangers in their Own Land and The Unwinding.

It is tangentially related, but this Freakonomics podcast episode "No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry" is excellent to get an understanding of how cities/states/countries fight each other through tax breaks for companies, which usually ends up with shareholders winning and taxpayers (and anything funded by taxpayers) losing.

Planet Money's podcast episode "Mexico's Front Seat in the Global Auto Industry" is also worth a listen.

Michael Moore's movie Roger and Me is about his hometown of Flint, MI (currently home to a massive lead-in-the-water crisis that the local government lied about and the state government has basically washed its hands of).  Here's the trailer, you can also watch the full movie online if you do a search:

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

Kij Johnson Cover Art
I read Kij Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with my feminist science fiction book club, and it's the first book I've read that made me really love being in a book club.  I'm not very good at book clubs because I don't like reading books because I have to read them.  But feminist science fiction is a pretty great space, so it's not hard to get excited about reading for each meeting.  Also, the women in the club are so cool.

Anyway, onto the book!  I really enjoyed The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe when I read it, but it was only after our book club meeting that I realized on just how many levels it is fantastically feminist.  For such a slim volume (about 165 pages), it really packs a punch.  Especially when you compare it to its inspiration, HP Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which I tried to read prior to reading this one, and just could NOT get through.

If I had read the entirety of Lovecraft's book, I probably would have even more thoroughly appreciated Johnson's version of it.  But I would say I read enough of Lovecraft to know that I didn't want to read any more.  Where Lovecraft seems to have no real focus except in introducing as many bizarre characters and species as possible, Johnson gives readers a more internal focus on Vellitt Boe herself.  While she is not particularly introspective, we learn enough about her to want to know even more about her.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women's college in a dream-world.  One of her students has run away with someone from "the real world," and Vellitt must go bring her student back.  She embarks (with zero drama) on this quest on her own, knowing that it could take a very long time and will probably be super-dangerous.  But Vellitt is someone who does what's right, and so she hops to it.

This is a short book, so I don't want to give a lot away on the plot points.  But a few things were really great and came up in our book club and really made me appreciate the story even more:

1.  Vellitt is middle-aged.  She's a middle-aged adventure heroine!  You do not find those around very often at all, and I just love that making Vellitt middle-aged and female is in itself a completely feminist way of setting up this story.  She is aware that she used to be super-attractive and that she used her charms to get her way and that, being female, her attractiveness lessens with age.  But she doesn't really miss her past, she is happy with who she is.  There's also this whole interplay with a former lover who does not look like he's aged at all, and the way they look at each other and how Vellitt reflects upon him and their past relationship is just brilliant.

2.  Vellitt is "ethnic."  Ok, ok, I admit I TOTALLY did not catch this when I was reading the book.  Ironically, the two POC in the book club defaulted to thinking Vellitt was white, whereas everyone in the book club who was white was really quick to catch onto the fact that Vellitt had skin "the color of mud" and hair she wore in braids.  Oops.  I don't think the race component in this book is as strong as it could have been, considering the author pointed out at the end that she wrote it partially to counteract the racism in Lovecraft's book.  I feel like if I missed it, it was pretty subtle, but maybe I am just not as attentive a reader as I thought.  ALSO, I would say that, based on that description, the cover of this book feels a little white-washed.  Maybe that is gray hair, but it's definitely not in braids.

3.  The girl who ran away from school is amazing.  She doesn't play a huge part, and, seeing as she's a beautiful college student who ran away with a boy, you'd think she'd be pretty flighty and lame.  But she is not.  She's strong and straight-forward and everything that is great.

4.  The setting.  Vellitt Boe's world is capricious and mercurial and does not obey the laws of physics.  We don't get a ton of detail about the world because, well, the book is 165 pages long.  But what we do get is fascinating.  For example, the sky is never the same color, it seems to roil and boil all the time.  There are exactly 79 stars in the sky.  There are gods, and the gods are not very nice.  While trying to make my way through Lovecraft's book, I felt like he just kept going ON AND ON with no point at all.  While reading Johnson's book, I felt none of that.  I am not sure why because really, many of the plot points are the same and Vellitt goes on essentially the same journey as was laid out previously.  But I think a lot of it has to do with the way Johnson describes the setting and gives us a little background on the characters that Vellitt encounters.

So, this book!  It's great!  It's not even very long but so great!  I am not sure if it is a great first foray into fantasy and science fiction as it is very dream-like and many characters that show up seem to disappear and then not matter at all to the plot.  But if you are ok with that and want to read something that is awesomely feminist but subtly so, then I highly recommend it.  And it won't take too long to read, either :-)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg

Isabel Greenberg
I adored Isabel Greenberg's The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, so as soon as I heard about her new book The One Hundred Nights of Hero, I put it on hold at the library.  And this book was just what I needed.  It's all about women being amazing, about the power of stories, about the importance of resisting, even in the face of inevitable failure, and so much more.

 I debated whether I should review this book or not because it's one of those books that I just really loved because it was kind and beautiful.  However, The One Hundred Nights of Hero tackles some really big topics in a gloriously feminist way.  While The Encyclopedia of Early Earth was complex in its layering of stories within stories, the stories themselves were not super complicated (that I remember) and the story was centered on a man seeking love.  The One Hundred Nights of Hero is centered on two women in love.  Cherry is married to an imbecile who challenges his friend to seduce her in 100 nights.  His friend agrees, and is pretty clear that if seduction doesn't work, force will.  Cherry and her love, Hero, come up with a plan to distract the nefarious villain with stories each night.  But not just any stories, stories about women and the power of knowledge and the importance of choice. 

In none of these stories is there a happy ending of "Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, they live happily ever after."  There are stories of love and how beautiful a thing it can be, but Greenberg always stresses that the ability of a woman to choose her fate is equally, if not more, important.  Some of the stories end happily because women find ways to live independently.  Many of them end sadly because the women featured in them do not fit neatly into the strict definitions that patriarchal societies have set for them.

That makes it sound as though this is a melancholy and depressing book, but it is not that at all.  It's absolutely amazing.  There is so much humor, so much kindness and friendship and loyalty, and glorious sisterhood.  Also, the illustrations are beautiful.  And then, of course, there are the stories.

It's an excellent, gorgeous book, and I intend to splurge and buy some Isabel Greenberg for myself for my birthday this year - she's absolutely worth having on your keeper shelf.