Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson, whose own family was part of the "Great Migration" of African Americans from South to North in the 20th century, began her copious research for this book with the belief that people generally had a limited and erroneous view of this important movement, seeing it as a phenomenon of the World War I era. Through her analysis and the three detailed case studies she uses to anchor the story of the migration, Wilkerson clearly demonstrates that the Great Migration continued well into the 1970s and that many commonly held beliefs about the migrants are wrong.

The three case studies that Wilkerson presents are as engrossing as any novel. Ida Mae Gladney moved from Mississippi to Chicago with her family in the 1930s. Working as sharecroppers, she and her husband realized they were never going to be able to give their children a better life. When a cousin was badly beaten for the mere suspicion that he might have stolen a turkey, the Gladneys start planning their move north. Although the family remained working class and saw the neighborhood in which they had proudly bought a three-flat become crime-ridden, Ida Mae showed amazing resilience in her ability to find contentment.

George Starling had hoped to go to college, but his father cut off his tuition in his second year. George became a fruit-picker in the Florida groves and began to organize his fellow pickers to demand better wages --after all, labor was at a premium during World War II. When a friend heard growers plotting to lunch George, he took off for New York, sending for his wife once he was settled. George worked for years as a porter on the trains up and down the East Coast; while he built a life in New York, an unhappy marriage and the thoughts of what might have been had he been able to finish his degree, cast a shadow over his life.

Robert Foster was from a family of educators in Louisiana. He studied to become a doctor, but was frustrated by the Jim Crow laws that kept him from practicing in white hospitals or tending to white patients. Foster, who had a penchant for the glamorous,  headed for Los Angeles in the 1950s. After a grueling journey and difficult early days in California, both of which proved to him that informal Jim Crow practices extended beyond the South, Foster managed to forge a successful career. He and his wife were socially prominent. Despite his success, Foster never seemed able to feel truly respected.

Wilkerson provides details of the three stories, and the violence experienced in the South and the fear that permeated the lives of the migrants (even after they moved) are stunning. She interweaves the stories with a broader recounting of the migration of African Americans north and westward. She analyzes work from sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and economists to strike down many of the stereotypes perpetuated about the migrants--for example, the sources she cites indicate that the migrants were not notably less educated than native Northerners, nor were they unemployed welfare-users. Rather, they were more likely than native Northerners to be steadily employed. She also takes on the argument that mechanization of cotton processing caused the migration, pointing to the many migrants who did not hail from cotton-producing states or work in the cotton industry. Rather, she emphasizes the desire to escape from discrimination and violence and to assure a better, freer life for themselves and  their children. Whatever the pushes and pulls, she argues, migrating was also a difficult personal decision, made with courage by millions of African Americans. She provides insight into such topics as the role of the black press, the naming traditions of African Americans, and the similar experiences of those who were part of the Great Migration and immigrants from other countries.

For those interested in U.S. history, The Warmth of Other Suns is highly recommended as a source for learning much more about the Great Migration than is typically taught in history courses. For those who think history is a boring series of dates, The Warmth of Other Suns just might change your mind.

Favorite passages:
And so what started as a little-noticed march of the impatient became a flood of the discontented during World War II and by the tale end of the migration, a virtual rite of passage for young Southerners . . .  Many of the people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things, tell them what happened and why they left, and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this Northern city or Western suburb. Or why they speak like melted butter and  their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the new world itself.

Above her was an entire economy she could not see but which ruled her days and determined the contours of her life. There were bankers, planters, merchants, warehouse clerks, fertilizer wholesalers, seed  sellers, plow makers, mule dealers, gin owners.

It occurred to me that no matter where I lived, geography could not save me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Red Bird, by Mary Oliver

I have read some of Mary Oliver's poems in various anthologies, but Red Bird is the first collection of her work that I have read (and she has published quite a number since her first book in 1963). i gather from researching her work a bit that nature is one of her favorite topics, and she returns to it often in this collection. She writes often about birds--the titular red bird as well as herons, owls, crows, nuthatches,  and hummingbirds--but also reflects on polar bears, foxes, lilies, and other denizens of the natural world. Although I am not sure companion animals--i.e. dogs--qualify as "nature," but Oliver also writes about her dog Percy. One of these poems includes the following lines on the examined life, something I have quite often questioned the value of: "Emerson, I am trying to live,/as you said we must, the examined life./But there are days I wish/there was less in my head to examine,/not to speak of the busy heart. How/would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not/thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward."

Oliver also writes about aging, ambition, faith, and love. Many of these poems are quite lovely, reflecting a wisdom that a woman in her 70s has gained through a long and well-lived life. For example, consider "Summer Morning":
I implore you,
it's time to come back
from the dark,

it's morning,
the hills are pink
and the roses
whatever they felt

in the valley of night
are opening now
their soft dresses,
their leaves

are shining.
Why are you laggard?
Sure you have seen this
a thousand times,

which isn't half enough.
Let the world
have its way with you,
luminous as it is

with mystery
and pain--
graced as it is
with the ordinary.

This collection also includes a number of poems that are political, something I take to be unusual from what I have read about Oliver. Clearly, however, environmental degradation, international conflict, and disparities between rich and poor are on her mind. "Of the Empire" is a scathing description of how our culture will be remembered ("a culture that feared death and adored power"), while "Iraq" is a sad rumination on the picture of a young Iraqi killed in the war.

Not all of the poems in this collection resonated with me--the bird poems in general left me cold. But others included language I admired or ideas that I wanted to consider. Overall, I recommend this collection.

Favorite passages:

From "Sometimes"
melancholy leaves me breathless.
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it. 

From "Percy and Books (Eight)"
. . .
But Percy, I say. Ideas! The elegance of language!
The elegance, the funniness, the beautiful stories
that rise and fall and turn into strength, or courage.

Books? says Percy. I ate one once, and it was enough.
Let's go.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

State of the Onion, by Julie Hyzy

I love to read about food, cooking, eating, etc. I also enjoy mysteries. So, you might think that I like the peculiar genre known as culinary mysteries. In truth, however, I have always found them somewhat ridiculous--why would a caterer, a chef, a baker, or a home cook repeatedly become involved in murder cases? And why would we want to read about food in conjunction with gory crime scenes? Nonetheless, when I found out about a culinary mystery series I hadn't previously known about--The White House Chef series--I decided to give the first book (of seven now out) a try. The plot: Protagonist, Olivia Paras takes down a White House intruder who eludes the Secret Service and thereby becomes involved in a case involving an infamous international assassin--all while tending to her tasks as the assistant chef at the White House and hoping to be named the new executive chef. Hyzy relies on the tired plot device of the woman who cracks cases that her more competent boyfriend/husband who is a Secret Service agent/sheriff/cop somehow cannot. About all the men in these plots seem able to do is tell their wives/girlfriends to stay out of the case. Ugh.

The information about the operation of the White House kitchen is interesting, although it's hard to know whether it's accurate--and it's not compelling enough to convince me to read any of the subsequent titles in the series (one of the many memoirs by White House chefs seem more likely to be convincingly accurate).

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Austenland, by Shannon Hale

I have avoided most of the Jane Austen "spin-offs" that have been popular in the past several years, but my son described Austenland as a spoof or send-up on the cult of Jane Austen, so I thought it might be fun. (I confess I have a bit of a tendency toward the Firth-mania form of the disorder; in 2004 when George W. Bush was reelected, the only thing I could think of to cheer myself up was watching the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice--unfortunately, not even Colin was up to the monumental task.)

Austenland is the story of Jane Hayes, a 32-year-old graphic artist with a string of failed relationships behind her and a fantasy that she will find her own Mr. Darcy. Her elderly aunt, sensing that this fantasy is preventing Jane from living her life, bequeaths her a trip to an English manor house where actors do their best to persuade lonely Austen-obsessed women that they are as irresistible as Elizabeth Bennett was to Darcy. Jane sees the trip as a form of therapy but soon finds herself trying to figure out whether the interests of two male "characters" are sincere. The story of her adventure is intercut with descriptions of her past boyfriends and how their relationships ended.

Hale certainly does mock the Austen-obsessed and, more broadly, the business of leisure activities based on reenacting the past. Sadly, I did not find her satire either funny or particularly pointed.  Perhaps it goes without saying that Hale's writing lacks the skill Austen wielded--her characters lack charm and authentic pride (or is it prejudice?), her dialogue lacks the wit of Austen's,  Furthermore, she follows the one aspect of Austen's writing that I do not like--ending the satire of courtship mores with a happy coupling of the female protagonist and a stereotypically stiff-upper-lip Brit.

Not recommended.

Favorite passage:
Why was the judgment of the disapproving so valuable? Who said that their good opinions tended to be any more rational than those of generally pleasant people?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rereading Sue Bender

I reviewed Sue Bender's Plain and Simple a few months ago and, while that was my favorite of her three books, decided to read Everyday Sacred: A Woman's Journey Home and Stretching Lessons: The Daring that Starts from Within. All three books essentially explore the questions that Bender spent 20 years exploring: "What really matters? Is there another way to lead a good life?" While Bender learned a great deal from her experiences with the Amish, she struggled to apply the principles of simplicity, finding her life still cluttered with activities and expectations.

In Everyday Sacred, she explores the image of the begging bowl--starting the day with an empty bowl and filling it with the extraordinary "stuff" of everyday life. In Stretching Lessons, she looks at the idea of growing by taking risks--to become as big as we are. Both books have wonderful stories and vignettes, along with reflections that inspire. However, I find that they are better picked up and read in bits and pieces.  At least when I sit down and read a big chunk of these books, I find myself losing patience with Bender--I want to yell, "Just get on with living your life as you want to." I realize this reaction is more about me than about the author, but I think others might feel similarly.

Favorite passages:
On seeing the white paintings of Robert Ryman (from Everyday Sacred):
An "inner light" radiated from the paintings.
The space was silent--with that respectful, muffled silence of a coister. The word purity came to mind.
And immense.
This was the "immensity within ourselves" I had read about and hadn't understood.
"It doesn't always have to be so hard," I heard myself say--the judge nowhere present at that moment. There are other ways of "seeing"--these paintings seemed to say. Other possibilities, infinite possibilities. Mysteries to be uncovered.

From Stretching Lessons:
Some people will never see us--that doesn't mean we're not there.

For years, my deepest wish had been to get away from my world, in which I feel pulled in so many directions, and retreat to a silent space. A place free of distractions, to work nonstop on the zillion of pieces of paper I had collected. A place where someone else would cook dinner.

The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

A couple of titles ago, I decided not to read any more Jodi Picoult because her books were so predictable. Then I read a description of The Storyteller and decided to try it because it was different from her typical book. While some aspects of The Storyteller are straight out of the Picoult tool kit--a New England setting, multiple narrators, a legal turn, and a twist at the end--the content of the story is quite unusual for Picoult.

Sage Singer is a baker, working for a former nun, blaming herself for her mother's death, having an affair with a married funeral director, and trying to hide physical and emotional scars. She becomes friends with an elderly customer, Josef Weber, a man much admired in their small town. Then Josef shocks her by telling her that he was a member of the SS guilty of atrocities while working at Auschwitz. What is more, he wants Sage to help him die.

Shocked by this request, Sage reaches out to a government attorney, Leo Stein, who investigates and prosecutes war criminals. He convinces her to talk with her grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, to see if she can corroborate any of the information provided by Josef.  Josef and Sage's grandmother narrate their wartime stories while Leo and Sage grapple with what to do in the present. Interspersed with these narratives is an allegory about a mythic Polish monster similar to a zombie; Sage's grandmother began writing the story as a girl and it played an important role in her time in the concentration camp.

I had mixed feelings about The Storyteller. The narratives set during the 1930s and 1940s were fascinating, providing detail that I had not internalized from other books and movies. On the other hand, the plot depended on unlikely coincidences, and the love story seemed entirely unbelievable. Furthermore, when Picoult tries to deal with questions of forgiveness--can Josef be forgiven and by whom?--the discussion is muddled. Muddling can be good if it causes you to question your ideas but this is the kind of muddling that makes you ask: What the heck is she saying?

I'm glad I decided to read The Storyteller, but I think Picoult could have done much more with the contemporary story.

Favorite passage:
That's the paradox of loss: How can something that's gone weigh us down so much? 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry

The present action in A Fine Balance is set during the emergency declared by Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi in 1975. The events of this period are horrendous, but the back stories of the four main characters and the epilogue set eight years later reveal that life has been cruel to Indian peoples of limited financial means no matter the year.

As the book opens, tailors Ishvar and his nephew Om meet college student Maneck on the train. All three are traveling to the apartment of a widow named Dina, who is planning to rent a room to Maneck and employ the tailors to fill orders for a ready-to-wear business. Dina's husband was killed in a bicycle accident on their third anniversary and, ever since, she has been trying to maintain her independence from her brother's household. Ishvar and Om lost their entire families to violence in their village following a caste-related voting dispute and are looking for work in the city, hoping to make enough money to allow Om to marry on their return to the village. Maneck, whose mother knew Dina in college but married a shopkeeper from a mountain town, has been miserable at his student hostel, losing his one friend to involvement in student unrest. These events have brought the four of them to the point where they need one another.

Dina, who grew up in a wealthy family but chose to marry a working-class man,  is at first disdainful of the tailors, who are from a much lower caste, but Maneck becomes friendly with them against her wishes. He learns of the complex web of relationships they have among others of Bombay's poor--people who live in the shack community where they find a home, beggars, waiters at coffee shops. As Om and Ishvar suffer a series of misfortunes brought about by government action, Dina finds herself opening her heart to them. By the end of a year together, the four are essentially a family, living, working, cooking, and eating together. Then Om and Ishvar return to their village to find a wife for Om, and Maneck finishes his one-year courses and returns to his mountain town. Suffice it to say, none of the four have a happy ending.

A Fine Balance, while written in a rather straightforward or objective tone that does not make the reader gasp with its beauty, is both engrossing and educative. And sad, so very sad. The conditions under which, according to Mistry, the poor lived in the mid to late 20th century are nearly incomprehensible--and I am embarrassed to say I am not knowledgable enough to say for sure what conditions they face today (though I suspect they continue to be terribly challenging).  My shortcomings notwithstanding, I would recommend A Fine Balance.

Favorite passages:
Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.

But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated - not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Color Master: Stories, by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender is reportedly a master of the short story form. Unfortunately, I am not a master short story reader. In fact, the stories in The Color Master provoke the "Hunh?" reaction, followed by brief concern that I am not very bright. A number of reviewers described the story as "modern fairy tales," and I can understand the comparison, without understanding the stories. For example, in "Appleless," a girl does not like apples--too mushy, cheeky, or bloomed, she says. So everyone else decides to eat only apples. When the girl returns, the entire group has some kind of ecstatic experience; soon, all the apples are gone. As I said, "Hunh?"

I did enjoy a few of the stories. In "Lemonade," Bender beautifully captures a teenager's angst at the mall when her friend is drawn away by her boyfriend and one of the "mean" girls from their school. "Wordkeepers" is about the loss of vocabulary the narrator posits may be caused by too much texting. The title story definitely fits the description of modern fairy tale but I almost understand it (the last line threw me off) and the idea of mixing colors in the way described in the story is both magical and entrancing.

If you like the surreal and opaque, you may well enjoy The Color Master. If you are more appreciative of the realistic and straightforward, you may want to skip this collection.

Favorite passages:
That's the thing with handmade items. They still have the person's mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone.

The phone is about the same size as a cigarette pack. It's no surprise to me that the traditional cigarette lighter in many cars has turned into the space we use to recharge our phones. They are kin. The phone, like the cigarette, lets the texter/former smoker drop out of any social interaction for a second to get a break and make a little love to the beautiful object. We need something, people. We can't live propless.