Saturday, March 7, 2015

Selma: not a book review

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the massacre in Selma that galvanized the Civil Rights movement in cautious Alabama and aroused the conscience of a nation dulled by centuries of institutionalized racism. Is it all better now? It's better, but certainly not all. At least we can talk about it. I can't look at the images now without a rush of emotion, so the reason I've broken from my all-book-reviews format is to think this through.

Twenty years ago, I was a newlywed, married less than a month. My husband's teaching and research position at Auburn University had been stable for five years, but the department was unable to get his grant renewed into 1995, so he began to look outside the university for work. He found an IT job in Jackson, Mississippi working for Bernie Ebbers at LDDS, which later became WorldCom and made world news. I was working at the hospital in Opelika, Alabama, and decided to stay on at least through the summer to sell the house, which meant that some weekends he would come home, and others I'd go to Jackson.

So my first trip to Jackson would have been right around this time in 1995. I had directions from him, but also consulted the road atlas to make sure I knew my way, as I'd never driven west of Montgomery before. I remember how beautiful the countryside was out there, with the black soil and the fields greening with their crops in the gentle spring sunset. I remember feeling grateful to live in a beautiful place. I felt that way often down there. I started to feel hungry coming into Selma, and Meridian, Mississippi was quite a bit further on, so I decided to stop and find some dinner. The four-lane highway curved through the business district, and then I saw it.

That's not in the atlas. They don't tell you that this road through the middle of Selma goes right over this bridge that's in all the history books. 

I had a complete visceral reaction when I came around the curve and saw history out my windshield. The car ran up on that sidewalk on the right, and I narrowly missed running into the guardrail. I pulled over on the shoulder after crossing, to pull myself together. I was surprised to find myself shaking.  You see there are large concrete blocks in front of both of the footings-- it showed me that I am not the only one who has reacted like that. 

Today, right now, activists from all over the country are gathering in this place to pay homage to the leaders and the movement that this place is so much a part of, and it's important to see where we've been and pay attention to where we're going. I have two ways of looking at it from where I sit.

First, I'm very protective of Alabama, because I chose to get my education there and stay after as a social worker in several small communities. When people come from other places and judge the way things are there, it makes me cringe. I worked in a small mill town that was so protective of its beloved gay citizens that no one dared breathe a word of dissent, and I honestly believe they never felt any, either. Maybe upper-class people could afford to discriminate, but in a low-income area, everyone depended on each other and had to look past race, religion, sexuality, and everything just to get by.  That was and is the reality in the small towns.  The cities were different, but I didn't work in the cities down there. It's far too easy to boil things down to the stereotypes and paint everyone with the broad brush of knuckle-dragging racism, but that is not the whole truth. Unfortunately, the people with political power are the ones who could afford to discriminate, and thus the institutionalization.

So the first time I drove across this bridge, it reminded me of the reality that things had been terrible there, not too long ago, and very firmly in the memories of nearly everyone I spent time with. It made me admire them all the more for all they had overcome, for the grace and fortitude with which they lived meaningful, useful, productive lives, with this as the backdrop. I believe that's what overwhelmed me when I saw this.

And second, all of this reminds me of my situation now, twenty years on. My husband has again moved to take a better job, but this time I'm not driving over a bridge to go see him, nor are there any of great historical significance between home and where he is.  Twenty years ago, to my great surprise, I grew to love Jackson and was pleased to call it home for a short while before starting graduate school, where he followed me to North Carolina. This time, North Carolina is home. 

I suppose the big picture here is that there is more to a story than what we can see on the surface, and the part that matters, the great beauty, the lasting value, is much deeper, more complex, more complicated than anyone can know at a glance. 

I've driven the road to Selma. I know what comes before and what lies beyond.  This time, I don't know what's just around the bend, or if I'll react shaking and sobbing on the other side of this bridge. I've had a lot of changes to manage lately, and I choose to meet them with grace and fortitude. I have no idea what's going to happen, but I know that I can handle it. That's the real legacy of my Alabama education.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Pioneer Girl, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated AutobiographyPioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's not possible for me to review this book without the caveat that I have a deep, emotional, historical, personal connection to the writer and her body of work. The very first "chapter book" I ever read is upstairs in my daughter's room: Little House on the Prairie, which I read cover-to-cover as a five-year old. "You read that at age five? No!" you might respond, to which I would clarify that at age five, I had a profound hearing impairment that made it tiresome to communicate with people verbally. Instead, I spent the quiet years between two and seven reading, early and a lot, and I credit that disability to a lifelong love of reading.

So now that that's out of the way, I was jumping-up excited when I learned that this primary source of material for the Little House series was finally being published. This is Laura's own true story, written (and misspelled) in her own words, without the literary and fictitious flourishes that were woven through the series of books based on her family's life. In the series, she added events that happened to other families for some drama, and left out parts that were too painful or too adult for young readers. It's all in Pioneer Girl, however, along with a lot of clarification on what really happened.

Scholars now agree that her daughter, then-famed Rose Wilder Lane, had more than a minor role in the writing and editing of the Little House series. As a seasoned writer of fiction, Rose advised her mother to add more, take scenes away, embellish, and change facts when they were inconvenient, so that the series is more a work of dramatic fiction than a true autobiography. Wilder historians who have been able to track the family's moves, Pa's jobs, tax records, and the like, have confirmed that there is more fiction than historical fact in the series.

That is what makes Pioneer Girl worthwhile: if you have more than a passing interest in the Wilder family, you will learn so much about their lives, their neighbors, the history of the Dakota expansion, and far more episodes in their story than ever made it into the books. The running sidenotes from editor Pamela Smith Hill have pictures of many of her friends, so you'll see what Mary Power, Ida Wright, and the real Nellie Oleson looked like, as well as what happened to them.

At almost 400 pages, this is a wealth of information and a treasure for fans of the Little House series, even if you haven't read it in decades. In Pioneer Girl, Wilder writes for an adult audience, which includes recollections of some of the grittier, scarier aspects of frontier living that would certainly be out of place in the children's series. Learning more about the family's true story will not spoil the books for you-- they will make you appreciate Wilder's work far more.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadLean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A flawed but still thought-provoking short read that belongs on the shelf with other women's history titles.

Sandberg's message to women, especially those starting their careers, is to "lean in," meaning to put energy, time, and effort into building themselves up into powerful commodities quickly so that their careers have momentum. She posits that a job you love and do well is more likely to beckon you back during the years with young children, and she is correct on that account.

Where this book falls down is probably no fault of Sandberg's -- she's in what's been called the "1%," that is, income earners that fall within the top 1% of American salaries. Her perspective is one of great privilege, and though she acknowledges that her situation is very different to most women, her position of great wealth colors her outlook. This book is aimed squarely at well-educated women whose degrees set them up for great income potential. Women who have chosen less remunerative careers or who have to work lower-income jobs out of necessity will find little to encourage them in these pages: it's a little hard to tell someone working three jobs to make ends meet that they're not "leaning in" far enough. It could also be very guilt-inducing to a woman who is home with children because child care would cost in excess of what her salary would bring in-- yet that is the case in the United States for many highly-qualified, well-educated women who "off-ramp," as Sandberg puts it; it's not necessarily a philosophical as much as a financial choice for many families.

If one can read this book with a bit of detachment and remember that it's from the point of view of a very highly privileged woman who has indeed worked hard to achieve much of her status, she makes some good points and makes a decent argument for why women should do all they can to stay in the workforce, even if it's difficult, even if it inconveniences a partner or costs money to outsource child care. She challenges women to make this decision, if they are in a position to have it be a decision, with great care and with a global view, and that's important advice.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up Marie Kondo; The Life Changing Magic of Tidying UpThe Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up Marie Kondo; The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What an odd little book. It kept popping up as a recommendation on many disparate websites, so I put it on hold at the library and my turn finally came up this week, along with a snowstorm, giving me time to read it.

I didn't need much-- it's very short; without the anecdotes, it could be a short blog series, and probably should have been. The author has the key ingredient of greatness: obsession with her target skill; in this case, organizing. The translation selected for the English process of "sorting, decluttering, and organizing" is "tidying" here, and that is what she describes.

She rigidly prescribes that we tackle our objects in the order of clothes, books, paperwork, miscellany, and mementoes, so as not to get bogged down in sentimentality and slow the process. She promises that once sorted, we will be effortlessly tidy for the rest of our lives. She's very young and single, too.

For someone drowning in a surfeit of possessions, this book might help start the process of decluttering, but it's written for a Japanese audience. In urban Japan, people live in small apartments, and by necessity, cannot own more than a certain amount of the above categories of items. In the larger housing across much of the US, bringing all of one's objects to a central space to touch and emote with them may simply not be physically possible.

As a cultural offering, the anthropomorphizing of objects is charming, but the practicality may not translate as well as the passionate obsession Kondo has for minimalism and organization. As someone who has made a lifelong practice of traveling through life rather lightly, I'm not sure there's much advice for me here-- but it passed a few amusing hours during a snowstorm.

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Honor Code, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions HappenThe Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book on the strong recommendation of someone who is working very hard to create a moral revolution and a new code of honor; the message was compelling enough to seek out this book and see for myself the philosophical underpinnings of this movement.

Appiah writes of three historical examples where something was done a certain way, questioned, and eventually overturned as immoral. The custom of dueling collapsed under public scrutiny, Chinese female footbinding became looked on as grotesque when Chinese society opened to some Western influence, and Atlantic slavery underwent moral collapse when industrialized workers could not continue to ignore their enslaved counterparts in the southern US. Appiah then turns to honor killings in Pakistan, which continue today, but under much more scrutiny as social media and the modern world help shape public opinion.

Through his historical examination, it is clear that the tide of moral change happens very slowly, with a few brave but influential outliers speaking out and leading their respective societies to change their outlook and shape new behaviors over time. It is very interesting to look at certain events through his lens of honor and see how they hold up; politicians certainly do not turn out well.

If you are interested in honor and morality throughout history, or ever wondered why certain reprehensible customs were once widespread but now reviled and embarrassing, Appiah will help you understand exactly what happened, and what is still happening in our modern world as we work to fight injustice-- as well as what work still must happen to change hearts and minds. This is a very important book for anyone wishing to make more than superficial change in the world.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Art of Eating Well: Hemsley and Hemsley

The Art of Eating Well: Hemsley and HemsleyThe Art of Eating Well: Hemsley and Hemsley by Jasmine Hemsley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't remember where I got the recommendation for this book, but it was strong enough that I added it to a Christmas wish list and subsequently received it.

This is a cookbook with much explanation before and during the recipes, outlining the whole-foods, organic, high-quality ingredient, gluten-free, etc style of eating the authors espouse in their meals-to-order business and in their personal lives. Many of the recipes use easily obtained ingredients, but there are some things that are more difficult to source, and as they are based in the UK, some substitutions must be made.

I read this book during a time when my own calendar shifted from being on holiday, to handling serious family business, to starting a demanding many-hours-a-day job, so essentials like cooking a bone broth for six to twelve hours on the stove are well beyond the amount of time I am even awake in my own home. The fact that it took me nearly a month to get through a cookbook speaks eloquently about the amount of free time I currently have available.

This may be a good solution for someone with plenty of time and financial ability to purchase dozens of ingredients for a single dish-- for me, it's not practical at present; I will certainly incorporate some of the healthy ideas into my routine, but this book falls more into the aspirational cookbooks category for now.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New RussiaNothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thoroughly compelling book explores some of the more extreme edges of "the New Russia," as told by the producer of several successful Russian reality TV programs.

We meet models, cult leaders, entrepreneurs, gangsters, religious extremists, wrongfully imprisoned businesswomen, prostitutes, the super-rich and the almost super-rich. Pomerantsev's work as a documentarian and reality show producer brought him into contact with compelling storytellers telling compelling stories, all competing for camera time, so understandably these are not average Russians. One must read this book knowing that these are people on the fringes of contemporary Russian society; thinking otherwise would be like believing that the United States can be understood by watching our reality programs.

Still, he gets at an interesting ideology that is gripping a culture only recently relieved of totalitarianism, and that is the joyful buoyancy of possibilities that the previous generation could not have imagined. It's like reading about an entire country of lottery winners, or millions of rags-to-riches tales all happening at once. Even the solidly middle-class have the opportunity to become stunningly wealthy with a few good business decisions (or well-timed bribes), and the knowledge that prosperity is around any corner has turned Russia from grim to giddy.

Pomerantsev talks about the elaborate system of bribery and graft that is required for one to conduct even the mundane operation of obtaining a driver's license, and the etiquette involved in delicately offering the money to an official in a way that is inoffensive and effective. These transactions dictate much of the commerce in Russia today, from minor necessities to multi-billion dollar deals, some of which end up as scandalous court cases toward the end of the book.

I ran the general ideas past another expat I know, an American friend who has lived and worked in Moscow for longer than the author was there, and he felt that this book is much too hard on Russian society; that any country can be made to look terrible via unflattering vignettes. He's right, and thus the caveat that this author worked with some very extreme citizens to make sensationalist television. But even with the shocking nature of some of the material, the Russian resiliency, ability to adapt and thrive during great upheaval, and willingness to make quite good lemonade out of a century of lemons, are all truly admirable. This quality of Russia comes through far more clearly than his condemnation of government corruption or claim that the media is a tool of government manipulation. That may be true, but one comes away from reading this wanting to know more about Russia and her people, and in that, this is an effective introduction to contemporary Russia.

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