1988. English 201. I was a college freshman, required to write a paper about fads vs. trends. For reasons I cannot recall, I chose to write about the1988. English 201. I was a college freshman, required to write a paper about fads vs. trends. For reasons I cannot recall, I chose to write about the War on Drugs. I can’t recall anything about the paper, either, though I can still see the “This Is Your Brain On Drugs” commercial that was rolled out in 1987 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Washington D. C. was embroiled in the Iran-Contra Affair. It was an election year. Perestroika had just begun rolling off western tongues. Benazir Bhutto was named Prime Minister of Pakistan. I was eighteen and although I knew all about apartheid in South Africa, and stood in line to see Mississippi Burning when it was released late that year, I had been raised in nearly all-white communities in rural Washington state. The notion that the War on Drugs was at the heart of a “stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (p 4) would have been beyond my limited understanding of race in these United States.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is stunning. The racialized social control she writes of in the introduction is quite simple to state, but devastating in complexity: the United States, since the dismantling of Jim Crow began in the mid-1940s, has sought to maintain the social dominance of its white population by the systematic mass incarceration of people of color, primarily young black men.
You can’t believe that so radical a policy, carried out on a massive scale that requires the collusion of each branch of government, not to mention the FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement, is possible? Don’t take my word for it. Read Alexander’s painstakingly documented book. Follow up her statements with research of your own; sadly, it’s very easy to connect the dots, all the way back to the start of slavery in the Colonies, long before the Federation was formed, long before the Constitution of the United States declared that slaves were defined as three-fifths of a man.
I could provide you the litany of statistical evidence Alexander lays out, but it’s hard to know where to start or where to stop. The data are here; the numbers are real, and they are soul-crushing. I challenge you to read this and learn for yourself. What makes this book so compelling, however, is Alexander’s ability to put human faces in front of the statistics, to show us that our shared history has neither a shared interpretation nor shared consequences.
Alexander effectively repeats and summarizes the concepts on a regular basis, which is a welcome relief, because so much of this information is hard to process. I expended much energy in rage and frustration of how this system came to be and is allowed to continue that I needed the frequent re-focus. About two-thirds of the way in, she offers this summation:
This, in brief, is how the system works: The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage. The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases . . . The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. … The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. …The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment. … a form of punishment that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework. . . and collectively ensures that the offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society.
One of the most thought-provoking issues raised in The New Jim Crow is the concept of colorblindness, and how Martin Luther King’s call to create a society where people are not "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" has been badly distorted by politicians in their attempts to dismantle affirmative action and anti-poverty programs. Recognition of this distortion is not new, of course, but it’s been skillfully employed in the mass incarceration movement by those who don’t want to appear racist. As Alexander states:
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Martin Luther King, Jr fought for a society where people were not judged by the color of their skin. He never called for the color of their skin to be ignored.
Michelle Alexander states in the opening sentence that
This book is not for everyone. I have a specific audience in mind—people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration…(and) those who have been struggling to persuade their friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers, co-workers, or political representatives . . . but who have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims. Last, but definitely not least, I am writing this book for all those trapped within America’s latest caste system. You may be locked up our lock out of mainstream society, but you are not forgotten.
So it’s natural to end such a bleak assessment of race in America with the question, what can be done? Michelle Alexander addresses this extensively, including taking the traditional civil rights organizations to task for turning their backs on the long-standing issue of mass incarceration of black and brown Americans.
As a white woman living again in predominantly white, rural Washington state, I despair at my ability to contribute anything useful to the dialogue, much less to be an agent of change. I accept I’ll be branded an SJW (fine by me) and shout mostly to a choir of my own peers. But I know, after reading what Michelle Alexander wrote in her preface, that this book is for me; I am the audience she had in mind. She also states in the introduction that:
A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society, if we ever hope to abolish the New Jim Crow. The new consensus must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action.
After Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO last August, and the Black Lives Matter campaign spread across social media, I vowed to listen, read, and better educate myself about racial injustices, as well as hold myself accountable for on my own assumptions and prejudices. The New Jim Crow makes me uncomfortable; it makes me angry, ashamed, fearful, and determined. Determined never to be so blind again....more
When I was a child, my father read to me an epic story of the life and times of Jesus Christ. I think it must have been Fulton Oursler’s 1949 classicWhen I was a child, my father read to me an epic story of the life and times of Jesus Christ. I think it must have been Fulton Oursler’s 1949 classic The Greatest Story Ever Told. We tried all the churches in our family, from the staid liturgy of Lutherans to the sweaty rollick of Pentacostals, and I’ve read many versions of the Bible, heard all the stories, told in a myriad of ways. Although longer a Christian, I am—and will always be—fascinated by early Christian history, that turbulent period when politics and religion collided and the teachings of one man, Jesus of Nazareth, gave rise to a faith that changed the course of human past and present.
Jeanne Lyet Gassman’s debut novel, Blood of a Stone returns to that first century with a stunning attention to detail and an unexpected, fast-paced plot. Rather than focusing on the man who would become known as the Messiah, the author takes us on a journey with the lowest of citizens: Demetrios, a slave. In choosing a character who climbs from the bottom rung of the social caste, Gassman exposes the layers of Palestinian culture and society: from the aching isolation and despair of a leper colony to the gross display of Roman excess to the crowds of the hopeful and devoted massing around a prophet whose fate is doomed.
The cast of characters in Blood of a Stone is our window into a world of merchants, nomads, prophets, Jews and Romans. Most fascinating to me were the intellectual journeys made by Demetrios’s companion Elazar, a Jew who first follows, then rejects Jesus, and Tabitha, a biblical figure who comes to play a central role in Demetrios’s story. Gassman indicates in the Author’s Q&A that if she were to write a sequel to Blood of a Stone, it would be a continuation of Tabitha’s story. I’d be the first reader in line!
I do not accept the mythology that is the Bible, yet I am acutely aware of the force of history it represents. Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, teaching a philosophy of compassion, the original Social Justice Warrior. Blood of a Stone presents the world into which Jesus was born and martyred, showing how his teachings may have been received and interpreted by Palestine’s rich tapestry of cultures. Written with passion and compassion, it is a lovely, impressive debut.
My thanks to Tuscany Press for providing an Advanced Reader Copy for review. ...more
I like to think I'm pretty well-read. I mean, I read A LOT and I'm really picky, probably a bit of a snob, as careful about the things I let into my bI like to think I'm pretty well-read. I mean, I read A LOT and I'm really picky, probably a bit of a snob, as careful about the things I let into my brain as I am the food I put into my body.
But there is a bottomless chasm . . . no, that's not a very nice image . . . An endless horizon? A galaxy of literary stars? All these influential books and writers I've not only never read, I've NEVER HEARD OF. And when I do learn of someone, I'm all WHY has no one mentioned him/her before? Was I just not listening?
Enter one such author: Rikki Ducornet. Of course, I HAVE heard of Rikki. 1974, Steely Dan. The pop culture plea for a young woman not to lose touch with the guy who wants to take her driving along Slow Hand Row. Yep, that Rikki.
This Rikki. She lives not far from me now. Although I've known that girl in the song for forty years, I knew nothing about the woman, the writer, until I read The Deep Zoo, a collection of essays on the nature of aesthetics and the power of art in our writing. Reading more about the writer, I learn she has deliberately walked out of step with contemporary culture, writing novels, essays, short stories and poems and creating works of visual art that weave together themes of fabulism, metaphysics, psychoanalysis, erotica, political protest, and environmental advocacy.
I enjoyed this slim volume of essays, even if I didn't understand much of it. It's full of gorgeous thoughts about playful minds and primal energies, about the importance bringing the ancient world alive in our modern philosophies, about engendering a "thoughtful lightness" (Calvino) in our lives, our art. There are beautiful quotes by Borges, Calvino, Bachelard, Ovid, as well as references to heaps of writers I've never heard of: lots of French surrealists.
I dog-eared so many pages, wanting to dish up her thoughts and savor them like dark chocolate pudding:
...it is the work of the writer to move beyond the simple definitions or descriptions of things and to bring a dream to life through the alchemy of language.
The process of writing a book ...reveals to the writer what is hidden within her: writing is a reading of the self and of the world. It is a process of knowledge.
"The alchemy of language." I love that. And this revelation of the hidden within the writer—it's precisely what I'm struggling with in my current novel: to give myself the necessary time to explore this process of knowledge.
Imagine with me a book that, like a seed held in the reader's hands, under her gaze effloresces. A book that contains not only other books, a library, the world's library—a pleasure already ours—but a book that, like a living organism, evolves in unique and unexpected ways. That, like the chrysalis, explodes on the scene in new and dynamic forms with each reading. It is thought that whales sing their world into visibility and so: meaning, stereoptically. Let us acknowledge how their songs extend and enliven our own. Imagine me with a book like that . . . A book that as it surfaces, respires . . .
I KNOW, RIGHT?! I totally want to read that book. I want to write that book. I want to BE that book.
In the elegant essay, Water and Dreams, Ducornet states that her first four novels are informed by the natural elements of Earth, Fire, Water and Air, and then she goes on to explore the element of water in her writing. I am reminded of Lidia Yuknavitch's gobsmackingly powerful memoir, The Chronology of Water in which she talks about the tiny Japanese sculptures known as Netsuke; Rikki Ducornet wrote a novel entitled Netsuke. My first published story, set in Japan, features Netsuke . . . and I feel this connective tissue of literary minds gracing me with courage to continue striving for the ecstatic and the true.
I think of a novel as an unfolding landscape, an entire country waiting to be deciphered. I have always leaned into new places, tugged along by curiosity and an expanding waking dream. How I travel is how I write my books. It is enough to have a dream for a guide, an intuition, an element. Writing is a species of practical magic."
Just as aside, the essay War's Body is everything I've ever wanted to say about 9/11.
There's a lot here that went WHOOSH, right over my head. I made heads, but not tails, of her treatise on William Gass's novel Omensetter's Luck or her examination of the gnostical universes portrayed in the movie Lost Highway, but I loved floating on the river of Ducornet's words.
We are keepers, you and I, of a special gift: if the creative impulse is to remain vital and resurgent, "The book we write tomorrow must be as if there had been none before, new and outrageous as the morning sun," (Ernst Block) Says Borges, "You raise your eyes and look."
Father of the Rain begins with Nixon's resignation in 1974 and ends with Obama's election in 2008. Those epic, touchstone moments of American cultureFather of the Rain begins with Nixon's resignation in 1974 and ends with Obama's election in 2008. Those epic, touchstone moments of American culture bookend this intimate epic of an American family, representing both the failure and potential of those whom we mount on impossibly high pedestals.
Daley Amory is eleven when her mother, weary of her husband's philandering and filled with a sense of possibility that the fiery political landscape allowed women at the time, takes Daley and moves out. Daley's childhood is splintered between two households: the apartment she shares with her mother in their wealthy Massachusetts coastal town and her former home a few blocks away where her father, Gardiner, holds court by the backyard swimming pool.
Gardiner is entrenched in his mid-century WASP ideals, with racism, anti-Semitism, and class-consciousness as much a part of his image as his club membership and the make of his car. He's a Harvard man, with a lazy morality that often accompanies privilege. Daley tells us, "In my father's culture there is no room for self-righteousness or even earnestness. To take something seriously is to be a fool. It has to be all irony, disdain, and mockery. Passion is allowed only for athletics."
In the mid-1970s, Gardiner's sloppy flirtations with his friend's wives and the oiling of his existential gears with noon martinis are socially acceptable. By the time she reaches young adulthood, Daley understands her father is a raging alcoholic.
Yet, Gardiner Amory is not wholly a despicable man. It's the wonder of Lily King's skill that she shows us precisely what an alcoholic can do to mask his desperation: Gardiner uses his charisma to create a veneer of humanity and humor, he doles out just enough emotion to hold Daley within his magnetic embrace. When Daley makes her heart-breaking decision, you will rage and want to shake sense into her until her teeth rattle, but you believe it's the only decision she could make. It's the woman Daley has become, but you sense it's not all she will be.
King reminds us that change is a process; we are not emotionally static beings, but there are times of forward motion in our lives, there are times when we regress, and for Daley, there comes a time when all time must stop.
Father of the Rain is told by Daley in three parts: her adolescence, when the classic dysfunctional family falls apart and a young girl struggles to find her place in the replacement family her father has selected in her absence; Daley in her late twenties, poised to take a tenure-track position at UC Berkeley with a newly-minted PhD in one hand and a devoted boyfriend in the other; and the brief, redemptive portrait fifteen years later, when the moon of Daley's love and loss makes its full revolution around her father's sun.
With grace and empathy, Lily King creates a richly-layered portrait of a relationship between a father and daughter. She writes through the outrages of addiction, the Savior complex, the work it takes to free oneself from childhood turmoil and emerge as a complete adult, with some of the warmest, most natural language I have encountered. Her characters, from the central cast to the minor players, are fully-realized and fascinating. In all the difficult questions it raises and the ambiguity of its answers, Father of the Rain is simply, clearly, a wonderful novel. ...more
Iris Bowen lives in the west of Ireland, where it is still possible to submit to a soft-focus dream of a misty-green land of softly rolling hills andIris Bowen lives in the west of Ireland, where it is still possible to submit to a soft-focus dream of a misty-green land of softly rolling hills and air scented with roses and blue sea. Iris has always lived an unassuming life, devoted to her husband and her adopted daughter, Rose. But her husband died two years ago, her daughter has moved to London, her newspaper gardening column has been axed, and a troubling shadow has appeared on her mammography x-ray. Only in her mid-forties, Iris must accept that her life is no longer quite the gentle walk on a clear path she’d counted on.
Impulsively, using a possibly frightening diagnosis as impetus, Iris bolts to Boston to find her daughter’s birth mother. She fears leaving Rose alone in the world and envisions an open-armed reunion with a woman she met briefly twenty years ago. Iris’s search and those whom she meets along the way are the bridge between her old life of certitude and this new life of possibility.
Also breaking into the world like a chick from an egg is Rose. A talented violinist, she’s earned a coveted place at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Whether or not she has the skill and backbone to withstand the demands of RAM becomes the story’s subplot. The brilliant descriptions of the music we “hear” in the book—Rose’s classical pieces, the traditional Irish fiddle playing by the luthier who crafted Rose’s violin, and the jazz riffs offered up by Hector, a Boston pianist—are some of my favorite passages.
Her Name is Rose is the awakening of two women to the demands and possibilities of life on their own, one in the golden afternoon of middle-age, the other in the bright dawn of youth. It is a novel to sink into, like a ray of sunshine on an April day when the warmth of summer is a gentle tease, a reminder that deep pleasure can be found in quiet stories of family and the first bursts of new love. Christine Breen writes with compassion and a lovely, easy lyricism. Comparisons to Ireland’s beloved Maeve Binchy are warmly, enthusiastically offered. It’s heartening to know that the world still has room for smart, touching fiction whose characters make us want to live more authentic lives.
My thanks to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an ARC of Her Name is Rose...more
My introduction to Yusef Komunyakaa: Neon Vernacular is a sampling of his works from several collections. Gorgeous, raw, powerful language. There wereMy introduction to Yusef Komunyakaa: Neon Vernacular is a sampling of his works from several collections. Gorgeous, raw, powerful language. There were times when I couldn't process the meaning of what I was reading, I simply let the words pour over and through and around me, like an abstract painting that pounds with colors and lines and textures.
I discovered the best way to experience Komunyakaa's poetry was to read it aloud- as is the case with most poetry. But his in particular contains such resonant rhythms, unexpected riffs, jolts of symbol and song-the emotions reveal themselves when the voice lends tone to the print.
In the time It takes to turn & watch a woman Tiptoe & pull a sheer blouse off The clothesline, to see her sun-lit Dress ride up peasant legs Like the last image of mercy, three Are drinking from the Mason jar. ' ~Moonshine
"My hands are like sparrows, stars caught in a tangled dance of branches. He raises my clothes. An undertow drags me down. His mouth on mind, kissing my mother. -Stepfather: A Girl's Song
into our stone water jars this song isn't red flowers crushed under silence.
Have we earned the right to forget, forgive ropes for holding to moonstruck branches?
Early in Leaving Before The Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller recalls a Q&A session that followed a reading she gave in Dallas in 2010. An audience memEarly in Leaving Before The Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller recalls a Q&A session that followed a reading she gave in Dallas in 2010. An audience member asked her, “Do you consider yourself African?”
Fuller notes that the writer with whom she shared the stage, a woman she does not identify by name but describes her so that we know it is Nigerian author and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, would never have been asked this question. That is because Alexandra Fuller, of English and Scottish descent, is white.
Did I consider myself African? The truth is, I longed to say, “Yes,” as I had years ago. Even, defensively, “Of course, yes.” I longed to have an identity so solid, so obvious, and so unassailable that I, or anyone else, could dig all the way back into it for generations and generations and find nothing but more and further proof of the bedrock of my Africanness.
I said, “Not anymore. Not especially.”
In a memoir of heartbreak and endings, of confusion and lost dreams, this may be the saddest moment for me. It seems to encapsulate all that Alexandra Fuller has lost in her bold and astonishing life: her country, her family, her way.
Alexandra Fuller’s 2002 memoir of her childhood in southern Africa, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, is one of the most evocative I’ve read. The follow-up, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, delves into Fuller’s mother’s life—and her father’s, after this irrepressible couple meet and marry and take on southern Africa—a story less touching perhaps, but no less fascinating. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight ends on Fuller’s wedding day. She is twenty-two, feverish with malaria, and helplessly in love with American Charlie Ross, an adventure guide ten years her senior.
The moment I learned that Alexandra Fuller had written a new installment in her exploration of self and family, I got in line. I’d fallen hard for her fearless, beautiful writing. Her family’s stoic humor in the face of disaster amazed me, their flaws and eccentricities charmed.
The initial chapters of Leaving Before The Rains Come make for awkward reading if you are not familiar with the Fullers and their life in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zambia; the references to past events are delivered with a kind of insider’s shorthand. It isn’t until Fuller reaches to the point of denying her Africanness at the reading in Texas that she approaches the book’s central theme: her failing marriage.
Although Fuller recounts stories from her family’s unique past to color in the lines of her present, this memoir is really about a woman, alone and disconnected.
Fuller gently probes at the reasons why her marriage became intractable. She is careful not to assign blame and she is protectively oblique about her children, now young adults. Charlie seems to offer the best of both hemispheres that pull at Alexandra: he understands her smoldering love for Africa, yet his very Americanness represents the stability she craves. He is older, sober, a man with a plan: “Charlie didn’t burn through the present, or drown it out, or wash up against it, because his past had left him intact. He had a future to look forward to.” After the difficult birth of their first child and a near-fatal bout of malaria for Fuller a year into their marriage, Alexandra and Charlie leave Africa for the American West. There they buy land, build a house—first in Idaho, then in Wyoming. Charlie starts a whitewater river guide business and Fuller begins to write.
But as we learn later, the marriage began to disintegrate early. As in that first year, early. Yet, two more children and nineteen more years of marriage follow. In their first decade together, Fuller writes nine novels that are rejected before she finds her way with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Charlie Ross sets aside his adventure guiding to sell real estate, a move that fits his description of “someone who wasn’t a stranger to adventure, but yet who was not unpredictably, superfluously dangerous” yet disappoints Fuller all the same. She married whitewater river rapids, not a Century 21 gold jacket.
This change of career isn’t what makes the marriage fail. There is a ranch, a house, animals, and three children to provide for. (Fuller’s writing career takes off, but if ever there was evidence that a successful book, even two, do not equal financial freedom, Fuller’s cautionary tale is it). There is financial stress and a natural lessening of passion as the demands of family take over, but Fuller reaches for a deeper reason. She identifies a profound incompatibility that harkens back to how being raised in Africa, in her very particular family, has shaped her psyche.
In Africa, we filled up all available time busily doing not much, and then we wasted the rest.” But in America “there seemed to be so little of it, and its unaccustomed short supply panicked me in grocery checkout lines, during meals, and at traffic lights … Of course, I changed and sped up.
Even in Wyoming—which reminds her of the natural, savage beauty she left behind—away from the city, at peace with animals and adored children, Fuller can’t escape the sense that she is losing herself.
Just as she is poised to make the break, disaster strikes. Charlie is crushed beneath a horse and comes within a hair’s breadth of death. Alexandra Fuller stays with her husband through his recovery, but in the end, they end.
Fuller reflects painfully on all the reasons why she and Charlie grew apart or never should have been together in the first place, but none struck me as insurmountable. Except—and this is at the heart of all Alexandra Fuller’s eloquent, spirited and raw writing—her sense of being misplaced. Her cultural displacement is a rift of the soul that she is ever in search of healing.
I am Alexandra Fuller’s age. We married at the same time, to men who made our knees weak, who were both solid rocks of self-possession and stability. But how and why my marriage has withstood all the earthquakes large and small while another’s failed is impossible to say and unfair to speculate. As the author poignantly states,
It’s not anyone’s job to make another person happy, but the truth is, people can either be very happy or very unhappy together. Happiness or unhappiness isn’t a measure of their love. You can have an intense connection to someone without being a good lifelong mate for him. Love is complicated and difficult that way.