Archive for June 2010
Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonymous name “Linda Brent” in the middle of the 1800′s, before the emancipation proclamation, hoping to stir anti-slavery sentiment. She succeeded. Her story is not only riveting, but has had a lasting impact as one of the preeminent classic slave narratives by survivors of U.S. slavery. It was one of the first autobiographical accounts written by a female slave, and as such it was especially powerful for its revelation of the systemic sexual abuse endured by women under slavery, from which no one who read it could continue to turn a blind eye.
As a young child, Harriet lived what she deemed a comfortable life with her mother. When her mother died, she was sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who taught her to read, write, and sew. But then her mistress died too, and at the age of twelve Harriet was left to her mistress’ five year old niece. As it was, the niece’s father became Harriet’s master, and though she was considered “lucky” because he was doctor and so had a reputation to uphold as a “decent” master (one who is not liberal with lashings, who is discreet about sexual discrepancies), he consistently abused and manipulated Harriet. Not only was Harriet forced to deal with her master’s unrelenting assaults, but she had to contend with his jealous, vindictive wife as well.
By what she considered her only means of resistance at the time, Harriet had an affair with a white man unconnected to her master’s family, gave birth to two children, and hoped that he would buy, then free, the three of them. This did not happen, so while her children grew up with their freed great-grandmother, Harriet ran away and hid in a crawlspace in the same grandmother’s shed–a four by seven foot area, three feet tall at it’s highest point–for seven years. She then makes a miraculous escape to the north and arranges meet-ups for her children there. They’re grateful to be together at last, but hardships persist and they are not altogether free for some years more.
With this account, Harriet Jacobs relays her experiences as a woman under slavery, particularly as a mother. It is a good companion read to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, which I read a few months ago, and it focuses more on the effects that the slave system had on bonded families than does Frederick Douglass’ account. As slaves did not have a right to family, it is an especially harrowing perspective, and Jacobs shows us the ways in which bonded families were a point of attack by those who willed them to remain disempowered. For in family there is love, and in love there is power.
And that is what reading Harriet Jacobs made me remember. Thank you, Harriet.
In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather writes the most starkly beautiful descriptions of the U.S. southwest I’ve ever read. And having grown up in the southwest myself, I’ve been made to read many. But none so simply breathtaking or evocative as hers. Red canyons, proud mesas, intricately-patterned Navajo rugs before crackling fires and the smell of hardened, leather tack…ah, home!
The archbishop of the book’s title is Jean Latour, who roams nineteenth century New Mexico just after it’s been acquired by the U.S. aiding the establishment of a Catholic diocese. He travels there with Father Joseph Vaillant, a boyhood friend from their days at seminary. Their friendship deepens as they grow older, and it’s lovely to see it develop. Each character wields their influence differently; sometimes with total respect for the very different peoples and cultures they encounter (Mexican, Spanish, Hopi, Navajo, among others), but other times, myopic greed serves as primary guidance for their actions. The varieties of ways in which this power plays out adds depth and believability to the book’s various players. The book is not so much a story of their doings, their comings and goings–it reads more like a quaint collection of snapshots from lives carefully, thoughtfully lived. It’s an interesting insight, too, into the religious politics of the region in the mid-1800′s. Cather’s writing is simple and quiet, but the effect is profound.
I appreciated this book a lot more than I expected to. If you haven’t, I urge you to pick it up!
Small Island is the story of four people cohabiting in 1948, post-war London. Gilbert Joseph, a Jamaican, is proud to serve his Mother Country as a member of the RAF, but once the war is over he finds that Britain does not consider “coloured” people its children and he is not welcomed to stay. His new wife and aspiring teacher, Hortense, joins him in London only to suffer severe disappointment at the shabby living conditions she’s expected to endure and the rude treatment she receives. Their landlady, Queenie, is a rare sort of white woman who is not adverse to renting to them, but is not without her own kind of racism either. It is when her estranged husband, Bernard, who has been serving in India for years ex-communicado, returns to their household that the tension becomes unbearable and finally reaches a breaking point.
The story is told from each character’s perspective, and Andrea Levy successfully attributes a distinctive voice to each narrator. Though I didn’t particularly like Gilbert’s character (he’s a bit sexist), his story was the most interesting to me (and at least he’s not Bernard, who’s completely loathsome in almost every way and pretty much a child rapist). It’s mostly through Gilbert that we experience the racism within the armed forces; a slice of history I hadn’t much prior knowledge of and found fascinating. I found the character Queenie to be kind of brilliant, in the way that she’s mostly well meaning but still hopelessly misguided, a combination that is all too common in the real world. And poor, proud Hortense…was by far the character I most sympathized with.
I read a review of this book a few weeks ago on a different blog, but sadly, not predicting that I would read it so soon, I failed to bookmark it and do not remember which one it was. So, I apologize for not being able to link to whoever it is that wrote what I’m about to reference. :/ Anyway, the review said that Bernard’s inclusion felt like an afterthought and I totally agree (not just because I hated his character, I swear!) The book is already two-thirds of the way done before his introduction, and by that time the narrative has already progressed too long for him to really feel integral to the story. In fact, he feels entirely disassociated from the rest of the text until the very end, and even then, he just didn’t feel very important. His sole purpose is to show why white soldiers were upset to find people of color had moved into their neighborhoods while they were away fighting for their homeland, which made them feel as if what they fought for is no longer theirs (i.e. racism). Which is already clear. If he had to be involved at all, I would at least have preferred less of him, and more time with Hortense. Or Gilbert, or even Queenie.
I also could have done without the constant reminder that this story takes place in 1948 (really, not even in the prose, but as if replacing chapter titles or something). I mean, I got it. Or the reminder that all this is “before.” By the time I learned by what we measure “after”, I’d stopped wondering. But these are small complaints.
I did not unabashedly love Small Island, but the subject matter was certainly intriguing and the writing was by no means bad, making it worth the read.
First ten songs on iTunes shuffle, plus a video:
1. Nite Jewel–“What Did He Say”
2. Etta James–“All I Could Do is Cry”
3. Vladimir Ashkenazy–“Chopin: Prelude #3 in G, Op. 28/3“
5. The X-Ray Spex–“Johnny’s Got An Addiction”
6. Fugazi–“Full Disclosure”
7. The Smiths–“Sweet and Tender Hooligan”
8. Brad Mehldau Trio–“Unrequited”
9. Fiona Apple–“A Mistake”
10. Beck–“Hot in Here (Nelly Cover)”
Nite Jewel performing “What Did He Say”
Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, by Jeremy Scahill, is a thorough, thrilling, and disturbing expose. Blackwater is a privately owned corporation that provides combat trainings, equipment, and services directly to the U.S. government and, theoretically, to any government that would hire them. They have been instrumental in the “war on terror” and are emblematic of the recent privatization of warfare that has, in the past decade, fundamentally changed the way that war is fought.
Blackwater is not the only “security contracting firm”, as they’d innocuously like to be known, of their type; but they are the most successful, and after having been the subject of quite a few scandals in recent years in which Blackwater employees have killed innocent civilians in Iraq without provocation and without facing prosecution, they are the most controversial. It was these scandals–the deadly shootings in Nissour Square, September 16, 2007, that came to be known as “Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday”, the killings in Najaf after the takeover of Fallujah–that finally forced the man behind Blackwater to make himself known to the public. That man is Erik Prince: a charismatic, entrepreneurial multi-billionaire Christian fundamentalist who believes that Blackwater’s mercenaries are engaging in a holy crusade on behalf of the United States, and who is careful to staff Blackwater with individuals who share this ideology.
What’s most frightening about Blackwater is that it operates in a legal gray zone. It is legally unaccountable for its actions. And despite its attempts at re-branding its employees as “peacekeepers” working for democracy, Blackwater has absolutely NO business incentive to promote anything but violence and disorder. Their preferred tactics, presumably employed under the “black contracts” kept secret from the public (it’s been hypothesized that rendition flights to black sites are included in these contracts), have been inspired by tactics used by dictators around the world, and in fact, Blackwater has actively recruited Chilean officials that have worked under Pinochet. Of course, these tactics, and Blackwater’s involvement in the “war on terror”, have done nothing to curb terrorism or promote democracy in the Middle East. Instead, they’ve inspired the opposite, and there have been instances in which even the U.S. military has deemed Blackwater operations as counter-effective to their own, but Blackwater’s ability to strike fear and terror into the Iraqi people was so integral to the U.S. agenda that it was decided they could not be let go, even though it would have been politically expedient.
And, Blackwater’s contracts have expanded. They no longer work exclusively in Afghanistan and Iraq, but were ominously present in New Orleans in the chaotic weeks following Hurricane Katrina, and have also been hired to do work around the Mexico-U.S. border in defense of the “war on drugs.” Though it was their cozy relationship with the religious right and the Bush administration that allowed Blackwater their success, Blackwater has so effectively integrated themselves into the very fabric of modern warfare and “security” that it does not seem as if a Democratic administration will be able, or willing, to extricate them from it. And so far, as far as I know, Obama’s administration has not made any real move to do so.
It’s obvious that Scahill has done his research, and there’s a wealth of information to be found in this book. The sheer volume of content definitely felt daunting at times. This was everything I wanted to know about Blackwater, plus more than I thought I could ingest all at once. It is a book for the lay reader, but it is not light. It might seem as though this is a book for those with particular interest in the subject. But the subject is so important, so relatively new, and so important to real understanding of the legacy that post-9/11 U.S. warfare is leaving to the world, that I urge all who feel even vaguely vested in the situation to give it a go.
After a wonderfully refreshing vacation, I’m back, and ready to tend to the blog. Sadly, I got close to zero reading done on this trip, so no new book updates yet. A shame, really, since recent thrift store excursions have been so amazingly successful on the book front and I’m super eager to dive into my new acquisitions. Oh well, no rush! In the meantime, check out this small gift I received last week from my old friend Bond:
A To Kill a Mockingbird matchbook! So cute, right?
Just letting everyone know I’m out of town this week spending some much needed time with family and friends, and will probably not be doing any updating on the blog until my return home. Thanks for reading, and stick around!
In The Vagrants, Yiyun Li centers us in Muddy River, a small, rural town in late ’70′s China. Muddy River is isolating, lonely, and neatly marked by crowded identical houses. The many struggles endured by the inhabitants of Muddy River are revealed as they all come together on one spring day to celebrate the execution of 28 year old counterrevolutionary Gu Shan. Over the course of the denunciation ceremonies and the following few days, we are introduced to Gu Shan’s parents, a radio announcer/government spokesperson with hidden wills of her own, a teenage sexual predator, a young girl ostracized for her “deformities”, and a small boy trying to make sense of it all. Gu Shan’s wrongful execution has a rippling effect on a population suffering under communism which mirrors the effect of the Democratic Wall Movement in nearby Beijing. But where there is rippling there is also backlash.
This book was a hard one to read. The relentlessly disturbing imagery (baby girls abandoned by the roadside, corpses raped and mutilated), not to mention the morally reprehensible motives of some of the characters, at times made it difficult to return to. But I did. And while it is ultimately an important comment on the nature, necessity, and effectiveness of resistance under totalitarianism, it’s one that’s been made before, and I’m afraid Li doesn’t add much to it. I’m not sure if it’s because the way that Li wrote her characters does not quite mesh with me, or if it’s because I was so turned off by some of the early scenes in the book that I did not allow myself to become invested in them, but invest in them I did not. Some of them I might buy as realistic, if one-dimensional…but others just plain bugged me, particularly Tong, the seven year old whose insights were a little more than I’m willing to give him credit for.
Without feeling a deeper connection to the people in this story, without better understanding the source of their inspirations, I’m left with little more than life under communism is incredibly oppressive and terrible and so is the devaluation of baby girls and coercion and dismemberment and resistance is probably futile but you should do it anyway because it’s right and all this awfulness can easily serve as metaphor for crumbling worldview…
And, well, I already knew all of that. Not a very bad book, but not one I’d recommend, either.