Archive for August 2010
Thank you Kinna for giving me my first blog award! I’m uncommonly excited about it. It’s the One Lovely Blog Award, and the rules are as follows:
1. Post on your blog that you received the award.
2. Choose 15 other newly discovered bloggers that you love, and award them with this.
3. Send them a message/comment to let them know.
I started blogging last spring, which seems like yesterday, so it feels like all the blogs I follow are still new to me. I’ll do my best to weed out the newest, some of which I haven’t even commented on yet. 15 is kind of a lot! Apologies if any these bloggers have already been tagged. In no particular order:
4. Book Snob
6. Book Gazing
11. The Lesbrary
14. Jenny’s Books
Whew! What a list. I will do my best to alert all my “nominees” in the next few days.
And now the heads up. I’m going back to school tomorrow after having taken some time off (insert nervous jitters here). I don’t know how this will affect my blogging. It might slow things down, might speed them up…I’m studying history and political theory, so most of my reading will obviously reflect that. Whether I will choose to post on stuff I’m reading for school or not is as yet undecided. So if things get a little quieter around here, or you notice a shift in content, you know why. Don’t worry though, I have usually been able to keep up a good balance of free reading and school reading in the past.
How about this: I’ll give the subjects of my classes for the semester and if anyone has a particular interest in reading material for those subjects, let me know in the comments and I will keep track of what we’re reading in that class and maybe compile a reading list and/or just make sure to write about them. This semester I’m taking classes on Islam in the 20th century, history of Marxism, “the age of extremes” (I think this one is about totalitarianisms? Will find out tomorrow I guess), and a history of New York City.
What does everyone think? Anyone else experiencing fall changes on their blogs or elsewhere in their lives?
Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew in 1940′s and 50′s Crown Heights, Brooklyn (a neighborhood very close to my own!). He is also an extremely talented artist, which is apparent from the first time he picks up a pencil as a young child. Unfortunately for Asher, art and aesthetic beauty are not considered worthy pursuits by his family or community in general. His “hobby” is foolish, nice at best and a curse from the sitra achra at worst. Asher’s father is a well-known and very respected in the community for the work he does for the Rebbe, helping to bring Jews fleeing persecution in Soviet Russia to the U.S. and establishing yeshivas around Europe. He is toughest on Asher; hurt that his son shows more interest in drawing than in studying the Torah, that he has greater ambitions for his artwork than he does for his people.
But art is not an interest to Asher, it is a compulsion. He simply can not help himself. His mother, already emotionally fragile following the sudden death of her brother, finds herself stuck between her husband and her son, and it weighs on her. She shares her husband’s values and concerns, but quietly encourages Asher’s passion by buying him paints and taking him to art museums when her husband is away, travelling for the Rebbe. The Rebbe is surprisingly supportive of Asher’s gift, and just before Asher’s bar mitzvah he sets him up with a mentor, a successful world-renowned artist in Manhattan. Jacob Kahn is a non-observant Jew but a trusted friend of the Rebbe. The Rebbe gives Asher his blessing, warns him to remember that he is a Jew, that he should allow himself to be influenced by the art world and corruption of the goyim. But when Asher begins to draw and paint nudes and makes copies of paintings of Jesus so that he may learn to replicate his expression, the tension between himself, his family, and his community becomes a monster threatening to devour them. The tension comes to a powerful, painful conclusion when he attains fame for his portraits entitled Brooklyn Crucifixion, parts I and II (not a spoiler; you learn this from the first page).
This book is amazing. The Lev’s family dynamic is so quietly taut and difficult, and so well communicated. I really felt for all of them, even when I didn’t agree with them. Their difficulty accepting Asher’s talent and his passion, which may at first seem absurd to some readers, becomes completely understandable, and is reasonable. Each character, even the minor ones, were fully-fleshed out and real, as is the compassion I felt for them. In reading this book, I learned so much about the Hasidic community in Brooklyn, one which I previously knew almost nothing about despite my physical proximity to it. I also learned a bit about art, another subject I know very little about, and one I’m now greatly determined to increase my knowledge of! I love the easy, reverent way in which Potok was able to describe a painting, drawing, or sculpture…so that I had a perfect image of what it all looked like.
This was one of my favorite kinds of family drama, in which a greater socio-political reality is reflected in the intimate family sphere. The tension that revolves around Asher’s art, his family, and his community in Crown Heights is a perfect mirror image of Jewish insecurity in the face of post-WWII persecution in Russia. It is also a perfect coming of age tale in which an orthodox Jew must learn to reconcile tradition and passion for expression–or not. Either way, someone will suffer.
I loved this book and I hope I’ve convinced some of you to give it a go. You won’t regret it.
First ten songs on iTunes shuffle, plus a video:
1. Castanets–A Song is Not the Song of the World
2. Telepathe–Devil’s Trident
3. Los Saicos–Salvaje
4. Pixies–Make Believe
5. No Age–Here Should Be My Home
6. The Breeders–S.O.S.
7. The Beatles–When I’m 64
8. Nina Simone–Turn Me On
9. Rangers–Bel Air
10. Patience and Prudence–We Can’t Sing Rhythm and Blues
“When I’m 64″, by the Beatles
I, Rigoberta Menchu is essentially a collection of interviews with Rigoberta Menchu about her activism and the culture that she has worked so hard to preserve and liberate, conducted over the course of one week. Menchu is a Quiche Indian woman from Guatemala who has been organizing for cultural preservation, labor rights, and against military occupation in her community and those of indigenous peoples in Guatemala since she was only a child. She was twenty-three at the time of the interviews, and in 1992 she was winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Quiche Indians, and many other Indian communities in Latin America, have little contact with the rest of the world. They face terrible discrimination and oppression, and struggle to maintain their ways of life. They shun the education received in traditional schools, which favors a version of history that is biased against them and promotes modernism. Chapters devoted to explaining various Indian values and rituals–birthing ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, death rituals–provide breaks in the narrative of Menchu’s social justice work and life struggle and, without revealing too much (for much of their beliefs and customs are secret, as they view secrecy as one of their main methods of self-preservation), provide valuable insight into a culture that most outside of it know little to nothing about.
These sections also provide a much needed break from reading about the many horrifying tragedies that Rigoberta Mench has endured while channeling her grief into productive community organizing throughout the Guatemalan Civil War and after.
Rigoberta Menchu recalls helping her mother work on the fincas (plantations, coffee and cotton) for almost nothing, under inhumane conditions, while breastfeeding and caring for her other small children. It was around this time, when she was about eight, that she remembers forming a consciousness of the exploitation her people faced at the hands of landowners. Not only were they barely paid, they were charged for the few things they needed to do their job and often returned home in debt. They were treated like animals, and women were often sexually abused on the job. Two of her younger brothers died on the fincas from malnutrition; another was choked with pesticides by a helicopter which dropped them while workers were still in the fields.
In 1967 powerful landowners, with the help of the Guatemalan government, kicked Rigoberta and her people off their land and claimed it as their own. This would not be the first time. As appointed community leaders, her parents helped to get their community organized against the land-grab. Her father enlisted the help of the unions, and put them off for a few years. But he was taken advantage of by people who knew the law better than he, and whom he could not communicate with as he couldn’t speak Spanish. He was manipulated into signing contracts without informed consent, tortured by the landowners’ bodyguards, and imprisoned. He was in and out of jail as a political prisoner, for “compromising the sovereignty of the state”, for the rest of his life.
Disguised as a fight against communism, the Guatemalan government continued to occupy Indian villages and rape, torture, and massacre their inhabitants. But the Indians put up their best fight. Rigoberta, her mother, and her siblings were not discouraged by the imprisonment, torture, and eventually the death of her father; they were determined to defend themselves and their community indefinitely, even if they must sacrifice their lives. They taught each other to build traps for the soldiers, to use their few resources against their enemies. Rigoberta began traveling to other Indian communities nearby, learning the similarities and differences in their cultures, sharing the story of her people and learning theirs, and offering advice for resistance. She raised consciousness and encouraged people to investigate the root causes of their poverty and oppression so that they were able to form a united front. Her siblings and mother did the same, indeed her whole community was involved somehow out of necessity, but her mother focused specifically on organizing women (and children), for as she told Rigoberta, a revolution without women is no revolution at all.
But Rigoberta’s progress was continually hindered by many linguistic barriers. She finally learned Spanish, the language of her oppressors, in order to work against them. In a similarly subversive manner, she continued to do what she had done since she became a catechist at the age of 12, and used stories in the bible and lessons she’d learned from Catholicism to support the spiritual struggle of her people and encourage their plight.
The work that her mother and her brother did didn’t save them. Her brother was kidnapped, tortured for sixteen days, and burned alive along with other captives in front of their whole family and people, to teach them a lesson. Her mother was kidnapped, raped and tortured, and left for the animals to finish off (these chapters are extremely graphic and disturbing–they gave me nightmares, so consider this a warning). They were not able to save themselves, but the work they did help to sustain their people, their loved ones. Rigoberta herself became a wanted woman, and was forced to go into hiding. Her two sisters went into the mountains to join the guerillas.
It’s a difficult story to read, but worth getting through to learn about this woman and her activism. It’s also fascinating to learn of the ways in which she works to save her people and culture by, at first glance, acting in direct opposition to them. She reveres Quiche tradition, yet renounces marriage and motherhood so that she may continue her important work. She learns the language of her oppressors in order to denounce them. She takes what she finds useful of Catholicism and leaves the rest. She has interesting things to say about the roles of women in revolution and the machismo of her companeros, and the social barriers that exist between intellectuals and those who have not received traditional education. I was also intrigued (re: abhorred) to learn more about how the Guatemalan government couched their abominable actions in terms of anti-communism.
As for the book itself: as I stated earlier, it’s basically a series of translated interviews. Rigoberta Menchu was not speaking in her native language, and it shows. The editor pretty much left things exactly as they were said, which is a method I respect. But these things combined leave lots of room for repetition and structural awkwardness. The rhythm of her monologues was difficult for me to get into, and it’s not always chronological, which bothered me. I haven’t listened to audio books since I was a kid, and reading this, I was tempted to try one for the first time since. I don’t know if it’s available in that format, but I might recommend it over the dead-tree book version. It just made me wish I could see her speak live or something instead. I learned a lot from it and am glad I read it, but the actual reading experience wasn’t that great for me.
I honestly don’t know much about the current situation of indigenous peoples in Latin America, but this book definitely made me want to learn more. I really hope that Rigoberta Menchu’s work, and that of her family and companeros, has alleviated at least some of the suffering of her people, and that we continue to learn from them!
I picked up Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies, on the enthusiastic recommendation of a good friend with consistent great taste. So though I had no idea what it was about, I had high expectations which, luckily, were met and maybe even exceeded.
The plot is difficult to describe, and the themes are so big. I will do my best to do this book justice with this post, but it won’t be easy.
Dunstan Ramsay, a school teacher, is disgruntled by the condescending, trivializing article that is written about his retirement in the College Chronicle. He addresses his memoirs to his former headmaster so that at least one person might know that the life he’s led has been an important one.
Dunstan Ramsay grew up in the fictional small town of Deptford, Canada. Through an unfortunate childhood incident involving a snowball and his lifelong friend/rival Percy “Boy” Staunton, Dunstan felt himself responsible for both the “madness” of the town’s outcast Mrs. Dempster and the premature delivery of her son, Paul. His guilt led him to become close to Mrs. Dempster, for whom he gradually developed a sense of reverence and kinship. Despite her unusual behavior, he sees a kindness and beauty in her that no one else does, and his feeling toward her turns to awe after she revives his brother who has been sick and he believes has died. But it’s when he sees the face of Mrs. Dempster in a statue of the Madonna as he’s laying injured on the battle field of Passchendaele during WWI that he is convinced that Mrs. Dempster is a bona fide miracle worker.
So begins his interest in hagiography (the study of saints). Dunstan travels Europe investigating truth: psychological truth, historical truth, and mythological truth. It is mythological and psychological truth which allow him, for example, to interpret both the Bible and Arabian Nights as “true in the same way” (which I love). His background is Protestant; he’s not interested in saints so much for their religious meaning, but for the ways in which they contribute to these different kinds of truths. It is during his travels that he again meets Paul Dempster, a professional magician and illusionist, which adds interesting layers to Dunstan’s exploration of perception, reality, and awe. Upon Dustan’s return home we witness the evolution of his relationship with Boy Staunton, who has never ceased to play a friendly yet antagonistic role in his life.
It may sound as though there are lots of unrelated threads to this story, but it doesn’t read that way. Each character is wholly necessary to the unfolding of events, and will eventually be brought together when Dunstan lets loose a small but vital secret. However, before the events that make up Dustan’s life can form a unified significance, Dustan must determine the meaning of the key players in his life’s narrative. Only then may he learn to reconcile the extraordinary with the real, map his own mythology, and come to terms with his own truth.
This book was mysterious and wonderful. I will be pondering it’s themes and characters for weeks to come, I’m sure. It’s both ambitious and successful. It is the first in the Deptford Trilogy, which also includes The Manticore and World of Wonders, two books I’m now painfully curious about and impatient to get my hands on. I am so glad to have been introduced to Mr. Davies, and pleased to spread the word. Fifth Business deserves as wide an audience as it can get!
Toundi is a Cameroonian boy who is fascinated by his French colonizers. He escapes his abusive father by becoming houseboy to the head of the Mission, but when Father Gilbert is killed in a motorcycle accident, he goes to work for the local Commandant. He finds the Commandant, his wife, and the rest of his European masters alternatively intriguing and ridiculous. But through quiet observation he gets to know them well–too well for his own safety.
This is a short book, only 122 pages, but it packs a punch. It’s a critical look at colonialism, racism, and sexual politics through the eyes of a genuine and sympathetic narrator. Of particular interest to me is the way that colonialism forever changes and confuses Toundi’s perception of his own identity and that of his country and culture too, as in the end he asks “Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French?”
This may be a slim novella, but it’s weighty in substance and rich in thought. Recommended!
This is probably my favorite Atwood yet, and though I’ve only read two of her many masterpieces so far, that’s saying a lot as I’ve adored both The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye.
Alias Grace is based on the true story of notorious 16-yr-old servant Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada who was served a life sentence for taking part in the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, in the early 1840′s. James McDermott, the man found to be the principal instigator of the killings, was hanged. Both in reality and in Atwood’s fictionalized account, there are gaps in the story which would prove the extent of Grace’s culpability, or coercion by McDermott. Grace Marks herself claimed amnesiac episodes obscured her memory of the events, and was then considered somewhat of a medical/neurological enigma.
In Atwood’s telling of events, Dr. Simon Jordan arranges a series of interviews with Grace by which he aims to uncover the truth. Tricky business indeed. He is quite taken with Grace, surprised at her remarkable composure and directness. She was not the disheveled “lunatic” that he expected. She was not the erratic woman he’d read about. Most surprisingly, what Grace remembers of her life before prison she remembers with unusual clarity and detail. She tells him of her broken family, her trip across the sea, her work as a servant, and her friend Mary Whitney. Her lapses seem genuine to him, but he is unable to shake the feeling that she knows something she isn’t telling, and that she hasn’t told in any of the three versions of the story that she has previously allowed the public.
Are her lapses genuine? Did she do whatever she did willingly, or was she forced by McDermott? What exactly went on during the fits that, at one point, landed Grace in an asylum? Did Mary Whitney actually exist? These questions plague the reader as unbearably (yet enjoyably) as they do Dr. Jordan himself.
I don’t have any knowledge of cutting edge mid-19th-century medical theory so I can’t say for sure, but it seems like Atwood gave Dr. Jordan a pretty solid grounding for where he would probably be coming from at that time concerning methodology, and I loved the inclusion of “quack” spiritualists and their role in the story as well.
With Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood succeeds not only in writing a totally engrossing murder mystery, but also explores what must have been the common experience of European immigrants to Canada, the realm of domestic servitude, and the conflicting approaches to dealing with women criminals and the “insane” in the mid-1840′s. It’s sociology made fun, and suspenseful.
I dare you not to get positively sucked into this one!
Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison
I’m a bit young to have any personal memory of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle, but have heard it referred to as a significant turning point in popular U.S. discussions of race and sex. So it was with great curiosity that I picked up Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power.
For those of you who don’t follow U.S. politics, or just need a quick refresher, Clarence Thomas was the second African-American to be appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991. His appointment was extremely controversial, not only because of his super-conservative, anti-civil rights politics, or because he was clearly under-qualified, but because Anita Hill, a black woman who had once worked for him, testified in his confirmation hearings that he had sexually harassed her in the workplace on a regular basis.
The essays in this book, edited and introduced by Toni Morrison, focus not so much on what happened, but how the issues were framed by the media and what the whole thing meant in the context of the deeply entrenched racial and sexual tropes that form easily recognizable cultural narratives about race, sex, and power.
The first few essays focus on Clarence Thomas’s conservative ideology and the paradox and hypocrisy of an African-American man condoning the racist policies put forth by the Republican party. African-American leadership was divided on the issue: support Thomas in a bid for symbolic representation, or oppose him on the grounds that his politics are, in fact, detrimental to the black community? What is the value of tokenism?
Things were further complicated by Anita Hill’s testimony. Historically, U.S. African-American women have been marginalized by both feminist movements on account of their race, and black civil rights movements on account of their sex. Many felt that Anita Hill was a race-traitor for bringing intraracial sexual oppression to the attention of the white mainstream. She was simultaneously accused of being a man-hating lesbian and jealous of Thomas’s wife; she was criticized for her careerism and her attempt at “keeping a good man down”. She was thought to be only a pawn for liberal white feminist groups, and was not taken seriously in her own right.
In coming forth with allegations of sexual harassment, with calm and composure, Anita Hill defied many stereotypes about black women: specifically the assumption that they are sexually lascivious and and always willing, that therefore it is not possible to rape or sexually assault them (this is an old assumption which was actually once written into U.S. law). She didn’t fit any easily recognizable roles for black women (think mammy, jezebel, welfare queen) and therefore, she was confounding. People were at a loss as to how to place her. In a sense, she was “de-raced”. By bringing up an issue that was both racial and sexual, she was “made white”…intersectionality was not yet a popular approach to thinking about oppression, and when pressed, people were more comfortable dealing with her as a woman (coded white) because of her sexual victimization than as a black person (coded male). This was not to her benefit.
Conversely, Clarence Thomas invoked symbols of blackness that are negative, but in this case were helpful to him. When he declared himself the victim of a “high-tech lynching” during his trial, he both de-legitimized Anita Hill’s blackness and subverted the issue of sexual harassment. However inappropriate and inaccurate the claim, Thomas effectively drew a connection in the minds of his listeners between the allegations he faced and the racist history of treating black men as brutes, sexual predators unable to control their animalistic urges, beaten by mobs and lynched for the smallest (or completely fabricated) infractions. In doing so, he was able to make himself the victim of racism rooted in sex and authenticate his own blackness.
Each essay in this collection is strong, and covers a much wider terrain than I possibly can in this single post. The ideas noted above are only a small, simplified sample of the essays’ contents. They were all written by academics and noted intellectuals, so the tone and writing of all of them is…academic and extremely intellectual. This is not a complaint, as I quite like that sort of thing, but I know not everyone does. Unfortunately, as is the case for many such collections, the essays do get repetitive and a bit tedious. Worth it, since I do feel I learned a lot by reading them all. I feel I now have a much better understanding of how and why the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings brought discussions of sex and race to the forefront of U.S. politics and how they forced widening thought about the particular oppression of black women and recognition of the existence and importance of black feminism. So I might just suggest reading the essays over time instead of all at once, so as not to get frustrated with the repetition.
A few of my favorite essays included, I think, were Hill, Thomas, and the Use of Racial Stereotype, by Nell Irvin Painter, White Feminists and Black Realities: The Politics of Authenticity, by Christine Stansell, and Whose Story is it, Anyway? Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations of Anita Hill, by Kimberle Crenshaw, a woman whose work I’ve encountered a few times in different capacities and never failed to be impressed by.
If those titles interest you, this book is right up your alley.
First ten songs on iTunes shuffle, plus a video:
1. Le Tigre–Let’s Run
2. France Gall–Laisse Tomber Les Filles (Gainsbourg)
3. Thee Oh Sees–Block of Ice
4. Vladimir Ashkenazy–Chopin: Rondo in E Flat, Op. 16
5. Weezer–In the Garage
6. The Flaming Lips–Oh, My Pregnant Head
7. Xiu Xiu–Under Pressure (Feat. Michael Gira)
8. The Clash–Hate & War
9. Mira–Of Pressure
10. Furry Lewis–Frankie and Johnnie
France Gall–”Laisse Tomber Les Filles”
I’ll be upfront and say I didn’t like this book much.
Jude grows up in southern England dreaming of Christminster University; a future among the learned and prestigious. His academic plans are thwarted when, as a young man, he meets Arabella and marries her when she tells him she’s pregnant. Their marriage quickly fizzles, and Jude takes work as a stone-mason near Christminster, again indulging in a dream which is increasingly unlikely to materialize. There, he falls in love with his cousin Sue, who is engaged to her mentor, a professor at Christminster who once inspired Jude. Much drama and dreariness ensues.
This is one of those stories in which each character is constantly making decisions that the reader can clearly see will work against them and everyone else involved from the get-go. Since I didn’t really like or connect with anyone in this book, I didn’t feel any suspense in watching their decisions play out. Instead, it was just annoying to watch them act on their bad ideas. Over and over again. The same things. Getting into bad relationships for all the wrong reasons. Changing their minds. Reverting to old ways. Going back on their words. Frustrating! And most importantly, boring.
The book makes for a searing critique of the institution of marriage and the unrealistic expectations that society imbues it with. This much I did appreciate, as I know it was really controversial when it came out, and the point needed to be made. I also liked Sue’s unconventional take on friendships between men and women (namely, that they can exist without sexual tension). But I was not won over by Hardy, whose every sentence felt stagnant, heavy as a brick that must be lifted before moving on to the next block. Nor was I taken with his characters, who all seemed selfish, wavering, and afraid of their own convictions; willing to disobey themselves at serious risk on a whim. I almost abandoned this book half-way through.
Have you had a different experience with Hardy? Is there another of his books you recommend I try before writing him off completely?