Summer Reading


IMG_3957Last year I joined Now Read This, the online bookclub sponsored by PBS and The New York Times.  Why did I join?  To expand my exposure to books I might not otherwise read, to learn, to explore, to interact with others reading the same books.

I rarely read fantasy or science fiction.  This summer has become an exception.  The June choice, The Fifth Season by Jemisin, won the Hugo in 2016.  The other two books in the trilogy won in 2017 and 2018.  I wanted to know what happened to the characters so I read them all.  The spine says Fantasy.  I think they are more science fiction.  Even people who claimed they did not like either fantasy or science fiction became like me and read them all.  This series tells a futuristic tale extremely applicable to events, both social and political, in the world today, how prejudice kills both overtly and covertly,  how fear of those who are different affect everyone, what it costs to live in a world where certain attitudes exist.

It took me two days to finish the July title even with chores, touchup house painting, all the things teachers attempt to do during summer break.  Although I had previously read at least three books by Luis Alberto Urrea, I had not read this one, The House of Broken Angels about a family who lives back and forth across the border–San Diego and Tijuana.  It is a tragic-comedy about the endurance, hopes, dreams, cooking, living of several generations.  His non-fiction book, The Devil’s Highway, is a must read for those who want to understand what occurs along the US-Mexico borderlands.

In the midst of all this, I went back and reread Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  Wow, no wonder it caused a stir when it was published in the 1960s: a whole country where everyone switches back and forth between male and female and those who cannot do this are considered perverts.  Additionally, the main character is described as having very dark brown skin and those who do not behave exactly as they should or politically protest are sent off to a stark camp where they work in excessive cold and eventually die.

Then I read an article about Toni Morrison and authors who do not write for people based on a certain audience, e.g. black, white.  They write about what they know, what they feel, for a different purpose. One book listed was Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a fantasy, all of which takes place in what we now think of as Nigeria. It has not one single white character in it.  I kept thinking, wow.  I read a lot of literature from Africa, Middle East, and Latin America.  Most of the time, for better or worse, characters from other cultures show up, usually European and usually for the worse.  Not in this one.  If you go to a book store looking for it, look in Young Adult.  Jemisin’s can be found in Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy.  When I mentioned to someone I could not tell why some are categorized one way and some another, I was told there is less graphic sex in YA.  Really?  I cannot tell the difference.

Next on my list?  I annually act as a judge in a literary contest.  Three novels arrived in yesterday’s mail.  Guess I need to get busy.

 

Make America Great Again?


Although few argue with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, few look long and hard at the history and life then.  Unless you owned land, were male, were white, nothing for you.  Most of the founding fathers still held, tacitly or openly, to the old English class system.  Many owned slaves even when they claimed to dislike it.  Throughout United States history,  a small group of high status, white men have controlled the country.

More recently during WWII, we imprisoned Japanese Americans but not Germans.  The Japanese were often seen as ruthless, barbaric while the Aryan German remained quite close to the idealized, white, patriotic American ideal.

Today when people read about white men murdering large numbers of people, the news and the comments indicate that most think these people are abnormal, not like the rest of us.  This is a country fascinated with hate.  For many in the last couple of years this has taken the form of hatred of outsiders, refugees, dark people.  This has brought a new wave of tough on crime mentality.  People who think differently, more welcoming, more critical, are seen as subversive, anti-patriotic.  Much of the public sees certain groups, e.g. black men, as criminals, wicked, violent, groups to be feared.  Any research contrary to these prevalent views tends to be hidden, pushed away, unreported.  One example is a report by Homeland Security in 2009 which warned law enforcement agencies about the dangers of right-wing conservatism.  Certain conservative groups demanded the withdrawal of this report and succeeded.

Certain Christian groups push for a return to Christian values not realizing perhaps the origin of some of these values.  The word, evil, provides an excellent example.  This word goes back to Saint Augustine who defined it as a refusal to act morally, a refusal to do good.  While Hitler, the Holocaust, and Nazism have been associated with evil, interestingly fascism has not. Franco in Spain escaped the evil label probably because the Vatican, the US government, and US businesses supported him.  The word evil is rarely used to describe state sanctioned violence as in the US support of the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile.  It appears we pick and choose the evil label to suit certain purposes.  Powerful groups are rarely labeled evil and therefore do not become targets of general hatred.

Fear relates to hate.  People hate what they fear.  Some media play on these fears to incite hate to suit their own goals and philosophies.  Certain talk radio hosts use their rants to further their goals in this manner.  They want people who do not think like they do to incite fear which leads to hate. These media can easily inflame the public fears about crime, refugees, drug usage.  They also rely on the often hidden preexisting prejudices that many deny they have, e.g. racism, fear of outsiders, fear of differences.

The ultimate end of these prejudices is war.  The often popular belief remains:  justice and goodness can be attained via violence, force.  We are good and everyone against us is evil and therefore to be hated.  The war vocabulary remains part of common everyday language:  War on Women, Drug War, War on Poverty.  Our language remains full of these types of communications.  It expresses a common worldview. Problems can be solved by force.  This continues in spite of enormous evidence that it does not work.  The War on Drugs never attained success, our economic and social problems remain.  Even efforts at containment frequently fail, e.g. the current opioid epidemic.  Many schools currently hire police officers and sometimes students are arrested for relatively minor infractions.  Often those arrested are students with certain types of disabilities or from certain minority groups.  Our prison population has increased by 500% over the last thirty years with the increased imprisonment of women double that of men, mainly due to drug related crimes.  Obviously, these “wars” are failing. Because of the “cult” of individuality and freedom, people in the US often see these failures as the result of individuals acting irresponsibly rather than societal failures.  Although these factors do not force an individual to behave in certain ways, they do affect a person’s psychological makeup, opportunities for betterment, and mental and physical health.

We have become a society possessed with fear and hatred caused by a profound mistrust of others.  Contrary to what many wish to believe this nation has a long history of obsession with perceived enemies and evil.  Some see threats everywhere, liberals hate conservatives and vice versa, some fear and hate those with different sexual orientations, the list seems endless.  Many see the solution as one form of war or another either through violence, incarceration, or laws.

Mass rallies on both sides further incite this sort of mass mentality.  History remains full of disastrous consequences of such behavior.  The Nazis came to power this way and killed millions of Jews via such strategies.  The genocide in Rwanda is another example. We see the perpetrators of such as monsters, but common, ordinary men and women made the Holocaust possible.  Good, decent people engage in horrible crimes.  The Ku Klux Klan continues with membership of otherwise ordinary, upstanding citizens. Doctors in Nazi Germany rationalized their help with exterminations and experimentations as part of German nationalism to save their country.

In the US racism is not the sole purview of white bigots.  Just recently someone commented to me about being colorblind.  Such is a form of denial.  When people see another person, they notice how they look, eyes, height, etc.  Most white people in the US today never choose to recall, if alive then, and acknowledge, if not,  the millions of black people (mostly men) lynched, most of whom were raped, tortured and castrated before they were killed.  When someone commits these types of atrocities today, we often refer to him as a monster.  We conveniently forget the long history of atrocities against all people of color in this country, atrocities deemed perfectly normal at the time.

As noted in the examples above, much of the violence and hatred and injustice currently seen in this country has a long history.  We have not been able to even come close to the ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Instead of talking about Making American Great Again, we need to change the conversation into a future vision of making the US like the vision detailed in this document, a place where justice and the hope of equality can be attained by all, regardless of color, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, religion.

 

 

 

 

Note:  Recommended readings include “Considering Hate” by Kay Whitlock and Michael Bronski and “White Trash:  the 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg.

 

 

 

The WT Swimming Pool, Stereotypes, and Africa


This afternoon I took three children aged eight and ten to the WTAMU (a local university) swimming pool, found myself a comfortable chair, opened my book, and proceeded to read.  When I looked up I saw this:

“This isn’t a democracy anymore.

It’s a Ricktatorship.”

These words boldly stood out in white on a black T-shirt.  For those not from Texas, the Rick to whom the statement refers is the governor of Texas where I live.  Between the two sentences was a photo of a cop with a gun pointed directly at me, the reader of the quotation.  Looking at the woman, young, unkept, no makeup, pimpled, overweight, I never would have expected her to adorn herself with this particular shirt especially in this intensely Republican part of Texas.  Then it hit me; I was stereotyping. I felt a bit horrified with myself.  How can you tell by the appearance of a person whether they are liberal, moderate, or conservative.  You can’t.

 

I went back to reading which was perhaps a mistake.  When it first became a rather famous book, I purchased Say You’re One Of Them by Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian writer-he is originally from Nigeria.  It contains five stories some quite short and some of novella length.  Why has it taken me so very long to get through this book?  These are not stories one can sit down and casually read.  This volume of searing, well written stories tells of immense horrors. The settings of the stories include various countries in West Africa, including Nigeria, and Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia.  Today, I finally got around to reading the story from which the book gets its title.  Now I wonder how I can sleep tonight.  All the stories describe the lives of individuals brutalized by war, modern slavery, and ethnic and religious hatred.  All the stories are from the viewpoint of a child, the oldest of whom is sixteen.  Today’s story, the longest in the book, takes place in modern times in Nigeria.  If you do not already have some inkling as to Nigerian politics, the whys and wherefores of Boka Haram, the violence in the oil fields in the south, and the intensity of the rivalries and hatreds among the various tribal factions and Muslims and Christians, this story will both enlighten and horrify you.  The sixteen year old young man in the story is fleeing the north with many other refugees.  Although he is Muslim, his Muslim friends turn against him even though he had his hand chopped off for stealing a goat.  They think he is too moderate and does not hate Christians sufficiently.  The Christians with whom he is a refugee turn against him because he is Muslim.  His story is not uncommon.  Look at Syria, Iraq, the Congo.  The rest of the world needs to know.  Hatred and violence can occur anywhere.  What happens in a distant corner of our planet affects each and every one of us.

Gypsies, Deserts, and Random Thoughts on a Cold Sunday Morning


In less than 15 hours, it has dropped from low 70s to 9 here on my canyon rim–one of the joys of living in the Panhandle of Texas where a mere change in wind direction can dictate the weather.  Yesterday afternoon, I was helping my daughter clean her back yard and ready the ground for planting some shrubs and a tree and now 60 degrees colder.  This type of drastic weather change has occurred repeatedly in the last few weeks.  Perhaps it has muddled my brain which keeps hopping back and forth from this to that.  First, the “this”.

Mostly, I read Latin American, American Indian, and Middle Eastern authors.  When I recently stopped by the library, I could find none of these that I had not already read so I picked up a book from a Dutch author of whom I had never previously heard, Margriet de Moor.  The book, a novel, The Duke of Egypt, tells the tale of a Gypsy man who meets this young Dutch woman.  They marry and lead a quite unusual life:  in the winter he lives with her on the family horse farm; in summer he leaves and lives with the Gypsies, wandering around Europe in their caravans.  When he is “home” with her, in the evenings he tells her tales of his Gypsy family and friends, centuries of history.  These tales shocked me:  centuries of discrimination, hangings–even Gypsy women hanged publicly for no other reason than they happened to be Gypsy in the wrong country at the wrong time, sick children whom no doctor would treat, starvation, driven from country to country.  Of course, like many people I have heard stories about Gypsies:  as a child my grandmother telling me that Gypsies stole other people’s children, a friend telling me the police said it was Gypsies when someone stole some silverware from her house, but I never really believed it.  Reading this book caused me to delve a bit more into Gypsy/Roma history only to learn even more tales of horror.  Hitler and his Nazis hated Gypsies almost as much as they hated Jews.  It is estimated that the Nazis sent at least ten per cent of the Gypsy population in Europe to the gas chamber.  On the positive side, I learned that many Gypsies were hired by people who raised horses to help them with their horse care because Gypsies were considered expert horse trainers and traders.  In addition, some hired them for their music to play for social events and festivals.

When several friends came over for dinner, I mentioned the book to them and my shock.  I wondered aloud as to why so many hated the Gypsies.  The general response was this:  Gypsies consistently live as they wish and refuse to follow the social norms of the rest of the population.  They refuse to settle down and live in one place, they enjoy life, dancing, drinking, roaming.  If you refuse to live like everyone else, the rest of the world will  punish you.

Then I moved on to the book I am reading now, Apocalyptic Planet:  Field Guide To The Future Of The Earth.  I am only on page 27 of 327, and already I have learned:  “Deserts generate most of the world’s airborne dust, contributing to a global migration of surface minerals.  Dust blowing from the southern Sahara is the single largest producer of iron for the mineral-poor soils of the Amazon in South America.  Half of this dust originates in the Bodele Depression north of Lake Chad, which produces about one hundred storms a year, each sending 40,000 tons of dust across the Atlantic to South America.”  And a bit further in the book:  much of the fertile High Plains here in the US (Kansas, eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, basically from Canada to Mexico) sit on top of a desert, e.g. the Sand Hills.  Currently, these sand hills remain stabilized by miles and miles of grass–our native short grass steppe.  It does not take much to imagine what would occur if drought continues and the grass disappears.  Once desertification occurs as it is now occurring in many places in the world, e.g. the Sahel, deserts consume.  Jonathan Overpeck, a leading climate researcher claims, “…we are significantly underestimating the severity of drought we could get in the future.”  He predicts many places now inhabited will become uninhabitable unless we initiate drastic changes in our water management.  People will be forced to move from places of little to no water to places “wherever there is no desert”.  He adds, “We are contributing enough change to the planet that we are moving toward more droughts instead of away from them.”  In the Sahel alone it is estimated that 500 million people will have to move to survive.  I think over this information and about the current drought here and look at the beautiful place where I write and live, wondering will it be habitable in one hundred years.

Now on to the “that”:  grateful I live here in the United States in spite of all our “problems”.  I could have been born in Ukraine, Syria, Central Aftican Republic, any of those places experiencing turmoil, fear, religious hatred, genocide, torture–the list goes on and on.  Instead here I am happy, relatively safe, warm in spite of the 9 degrees outside, well fed–you get the picture.

Geronimo: A Manly Legend, No Women Allowed!


Geronimo: A Manly Legend, No Women Allowed!.  This is from a blog I follow.  If you are interested in Native American history, this is definitely a must read, complete with photos of the Apache women who have totally been left out of most tellings of the Geronimo and Apache histories.  I also recommend the story by Leslie Marmon Silko, my favorite author, which relates another view.  The story is, “A Geronimo Story”.  It can be found in her book, Storyteller.  There is a belief among some that the real Geronimo was not the person captured and imprisoned.  Supposedly, the Apache tried to tell this to the whites, but they refused to believe it.

Bedtime Reading or Not–the Hazara


A lifelong habit that helps me settle down to sleep remains reading.  However, occasionally I delve into a book that turns out not to be so wonderful to read just before going to bed.  The topic turns to the disturbing and then, suddenly, my mind churns.  By that time, it is too late to go back.  Or, like the book I am reading now, parts of it consist of stories inspiring, amusing, enlightening, parables for life.  Then there are the other parts:  the abuse of an entire people by the other ethnicities surrounding them, genocide, turmoil, invasion.  I remain a lifelong lover of libraries.  Recently, while browsing through new books, I found this one:  The Honey Thief  by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman.  Mazari grew up in a Hazara village in the northern part of Afghanistan, the area known as Hazarajat, became a master rug maker and fled from the Taliban to Australia in 2000 where he met his now close friend and coauthor.  For several days now, it has been my bedtime reading.

The Hazara people speak a dialect of Farci, the language of Iran.  Data varies, but they number approximately seven million in Afghanistan and remain one of the largest ethnic groups there.  Nevertheless, in spite of this, other groups discriminate against them for various reasons, including the fact that most Hazara are Shia Muslims surrounded by Sunnis.  Until 1893, they were the majority when half were massacred and many fled to live in Iran, Pakistan, and India.  Some believe the Hazara are the descendants of Genghis Khan’s warriors.  Many resemble the people who live in Mongolia today and in many ways parts of their culture resemble that of Mongolia, e.g. their tents look like yurts; no one knows for sure.  They have lived in what is now known as Afghanistan for hundreds of years.  They are people of the mountains who have learned to cultivate beauty and farm in high, inaccessible places.  They are famous for poetry and story telling.  Unlike other women in Afghanistan, they shunned burkas, fought along side men as soldiers, and believed in education for women.  These attributes fueled discrimination by other groups there.

Now back to bedtime reading.  Several stories in particular contain what I consider the necessary qualities for bedtime perusal:  entertaining and instructive without gore, controversy.  They also hold an unusual quality of something you cannot quite quantify, a hint of the mystery of life, of a particular kind of not quite describable beauty.  Hoping that at least some of you will find the book and actually read it, I will first list the stories to read without dread or worry if you want to read at bedtime:  “The Wolf Is the Most Intelligent of Creatures”, “The Music School”, and the “Snow Leopard”.  Under no circumstances read “The Life of Abdul Khaliq” and “The Death of Abdul Khaliq”.  You will, indeed, learn a considerable amount of Afghan history, but unless you are quite heartless and insensitive, you probably will not be able to drift off to a pleasant dreamland for hours.

If all this stokes your curiosity, here are two websites to learn more about the Hazara:  www.joshuaproject.net and http://www.hazarapeople.com.