Book Reviews – Barbara Beckwith http://www.barbarabeckwith.net Writer and Activist Tue, 06 Jun 2017 18:33:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 My Review of Books I read on our Aug 2015 Reading Weekend, Great Barrington, MA http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2015/09/08/my-review-of-books-i-read-on-our-aug-2015-reading-weekend-great-barrington-ma/ Tue, 08 Sep 2015 23:57:13 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=532

Novel

The Meursault Investigation, by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud (The Other Press, 2015; first published in 2014 in France). Stunningly told in the 2nd person, from the perspective of Musa, the brother of “the Arab” killed by Meursault in Camus’ novel L’Etranger. Musa  talks to whoever will listen in a bar, Ancient Mariner-like. He is haunted by what he sees as the acclaimed French Algerian author’s  ignoring the humanity, even the name, of the man he killed for no reason.  The reviews I read after our reading weekend talk of Daoud’s “revenge” plot but ignore (except for Irish Times) what I saw: the confusing conflation of Camus as author and Camus ‘s character Meursault.

I saw it as a brilliant recreation in Musa of the same anomie as Meursault; the same existentialist view, the same godlessness, inability to act, and unjustified killing. The “voice” is compelling: it makes me want to read more novels written in the 2nd person. I am reading Daoud again, and L’Etranger, as well, and have ordered Camus’ autobiography Le Premier Homme (but in English).

Narrative Non-fiction:

Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe (Scribner, 2009). I finished this book I’d been reading at home. The author follows four talented and smart girls through high school, focusing on their struggle to go to college and get professional jobs. The book makes clear that the two “without papers” are hampered and hemmed in at every turn, while the two who “have papers” face challenges as well, including to their friendships.  The girls’ struggles to fulfil their potential seem heroic to me.

Memoir

Lost Among the Baining: Adventure, Marriage, & Other Fieldwork, by Gail Pool (University of Missouri Press, 2015). Loved this book, which appears to be but is more than an account of an anthropological expedition, more than a travel book, more than a memoir. I can relate to Gail, a woman who “follows her husband” Jeremy as I did when Jon  worked in labs abroad (London and Cambridge, Paris and Naples). Jeremy wants to study gender roles among New Guinea’s Baining, a little studied group, but his expectations of the studiable aspects of their lives prove elusive: they don’t seem to have gender roles, myths, rituals, religions. Gail slogs with him through the jungle, then struggles with what to do when they get there. They argue. They cope. After 16 months, they return to the U.S. Disillusioned, Jeremy abandons anthropology, goes in to computer work. Gail has children and struggles as a writer, haunted by her experience in her 20s but unable to put it into a novel. In 2008,  Jeremy is invited to New Guinea for a conference. They take an even more onerous (they are now in their 60s) boat/jeep/walk back to the Baining, which gives Gail enough perspective to write this book. Pool writes in the first person, which adds immediacy to her story. She ends with this reflection:

“What a mark these quiet people made on our lives. How they awed and angered and frightened us with how little they seemed to need, threatening everything we thought, even thinking itself. There was a before and after the Baining, and after, nothing felt the same. There we are at the end of our field trip, running in fear and anger from what the Baining seemed to have revealed about life and ourselves….We can’t change the past, but we have given it a different ending, which has changed the story itself. We are no longer afraid, we are no longer angry, and we are no longer running. We see no need for judgments – one culture against another – and no choice between them that we ever could have made. From here, we no longer blame the Baining for not being who anthropologists thought they should be. And from here, we no longer blame this journey for leaving us in exile, which now feels like a place of our own. We aren’t Baining. We have never quite come home. But our battles – with the Baining and one another – have ended. And somehow everyone has won.”

The Theft of Memory: On Losing My Father, One Day at a Time, by Jonathan Kozol (Crown, 2105). Kozol describes his parents’ later years (they live to be 102), as his mother becomes frail and his father, a former neurologist,  struggles to communicate despite Alzheimers, often writing in the form of doctor’s memos.

“Repair repetitions. Hope: Advise and continue treatment plan. Hope: in catastrophe. Legs: Recovery. Continued recent status of. Note: Loss of Certain Figures. List: History of HLK poses a number of several histories and multiple fine retardants.”

Kozol’s father reveals, at age 88, his cognitive problems to his son but doesn’t let his wife know until long after. A broken hip sends him to a nursing home, where he stays for 6 years, after which Kozol,  who’d for years been largely absent, writing and traveling extensively, moves his father back into his parents’ Cambridge home, to be cared for 24/7 by a series of wonderful caretakers (well, one not wonderful). When $ for caregivers ran out, Kozol makes up the difference. Kozol discovers as he looks through his father’s papers, that his patients included Eugene ONeil and that he’d evaluated Albert DeSalvo (The Boston Strangler) and Patty Hearst. He ponders his relationship with his parents over the decades, and, ever the institutional critic, describes the bad care his father got from his geriatrician (and at MGH).

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau/Random House, 2105). Coates writes this book to his teenaged son; it’s as fiery and eloquent as James Baldwin.

[On school] “The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.”

It began to strike me that the point of my education, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness.

For “people who think they are white” [Coates uses this identifier throughout his memoir], forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them the suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down hear with us, down here in the world.

My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

Perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered.

Forgiving the killer of Prince Jones [young black man killed by Virginia police officer who claimed Prince had tried to run him over with his jeep] would have seemed irrelevant to me. The killer was the direct expression of all his countries beliefs.

I knew that Prince George County police had killed Elmer Clay Newman, then claimed he’d rammed his own head into the wall of a jail cell. And I knew that they’d shot Gary Hopkins and said he’d gone for an officer’s gun. And I knew they had beaten Freddie McCollum half-blind and blamed it all on a collapsing floor. And I had read reports of these officers choking mechanics, shooting construction workers, slamming suspects through the glass doors of shopping malls. And I knew that they did this with great regularity. These shooters were investigated, exonerated, and promptly returned to the streets, where, so emboldened, they shot again.

Our current politics tell you that should you fall victim to such an assault and lose our body, it must somehow be your fault. Trayvon Martin’s hoodie got him killed. Jordan Davis’s loud music did the same. John Crawford should never have touched the rifle on display. Kajieme Powell should have known not to be crazy. All of them should have had fathers—even the ones who had fathers, even you.

Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra – “either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all – the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that American made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country.

I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers  the way the light falls in one particular spot in the wood, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite seasons who excels at dressmaking and knows, insider herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

I wanted you to have your own life, apart from fear – even apart from me. I am wounded. I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God, and Real Estate in a Small Town, by Sarah Payne Stuart (Riverhead, 2015).  I had started this book and read the last half this weekend. Stuart’s sardonic and overgeneralized view of WASPy Concord, MA, verges toward the snarky, although she mocks herself as much as she mocks what she sees as the town’s pervasive WASP/Pilgrim mores, and her parents’ enthusiastic collusion with them. Her memoir starts:

If you come from New England, the creeping certainty that you are a bad person is always with you.

I had been taught as a child not to want things – as my mother and the Concord matriarchs would call anything new and unnecessary.

We were not a present-y family – our discomfort tracing back to the Puritans who made a point – though what point I do not know – of treating Christmas like an ordinary day.

I might have welcomed the Indians attacking, so guilty was I about my bragging. l “Materialistic, mercenary, “house-proud” – the damning adjectives of my parents’ generation ran accusingly through my brain.

And yet she kept buying houses (a photo of each starts each chapter), repeating the failings she sees in her town and family:

My identity has been a poor one – based on a silly family pride that has not deserved itself for many generations, on raising my children in houses we can’t afford, on having my parents at hand to monitor my successes and failures.

He too [her husband] had been weaned from milk bottle to gin bottle on the icy Calvinistic belief that you were either good or bad, with no recourse to the comfort of priest or confessional.

One frosty morning, a brigade of ferociously frill-less women in L. L. Bean coats descended upon us. These were the women of the Concord Historic Districts Commission and just about every other commission in town (on the census they list their occupations, terrifyingly, as: volunteer). … Suddenly we doubted ourselves: why were we spending money on our house instead of saving it? Why, for that matter, had we never saved anything? These women had saved throughout their entire lives – they were saving now. They carpooled to get here; they don’t touch the guest towels in my powder room, but emerge shaking their hands dry. They’ve saved on clothes, on face creams, on Scotch tape, on Christmas presents, on wrapping paper, on demonstrations of affection.

I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor, frugal, extravagant, or generous. I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.

Stuart weaves in Concord’s famous authors Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and especially Louisa May Alcott and the reality of the beleaguered author of Little Women: “As much as I delight in hating Bronson Alcott, the sad truth is, when it comes to houses and the deeply shallow joy we take from them – we are one.”

She mocks her own family:

Somehow it was my mother who was always the center of our disdain. My mother whom I aped doing the jerk or the twist at a jazz party, churning up and down like a corkscrew with gritted teeth; my mother, whom we laughed at, manufacturing chores for us that would have been easier for her to do herself; my mother who, we laughed, stupidly trusted me with my pot-smoking brothers at the house when she and my father were away for a weekend.

A professional photographer had been engaged at hideous expense to take a hideous photograph to be hideously framed or each member of the family – only three years hence to be tossed in attics due to sundry uncoupling.

She recounts, in her persistent sardonic tone, the mental problems of her mother, her brother, and her son. And yet I do admire snarky sentences of the kind I would never think to write, like this, describing what’s in her deceased mother-in-laws’ dresser drawer —  “a writhing snake pit of old panty hose.”

And her description of her own self-pride and downfall upon publication of her first book :

I sauntered around town, modestly smiling at everyone….. when[the esteemed Concord matriarch] addressed me [in the supermarket], not by my childhood nickname, but at last, at last (!) by my writing name – “Sarah Payne Stuart!” – I had whirled around aglow, only to hear her exclaim, “You have my cart.”

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin, 2105). NYT columnist describes being raised in Louisiana in poverty by a mother (his father was mostly absent) who raised five boys, eventually earning degrees that allowed her to support them. Blow fantasized about boys; but could never say so; the worst thing a black kid could be called was a “punk” (gay). He was traumatized and further silenced when his mother berated him for his walk, when his older cousin abused him and then threatened to say he was a punk, when an uncle groped him. All this made him feel that HE was wrong, not those who had wronged him. He became known for his athletic and intellectual brilliance, and at his historically black college, joined a fraternity after torturous hazing that the then allowed to continue when he became the frat’s president. By the end of his memoir, he is married with kids, and comfortable as a bisexual.

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Lillian’s Last Affair – book review http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/05/25/lillians-last-affair-book-review/ Sun, 25 May 2014 14:15:35 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=429 The characters in Sue Katz’ Lillian’s Last Affair and Other Stories, may be 65+ in age, but after reading these six stories (www.suekatz.com), you’ll never again assume that you know what a “little old lady” is thinking or doing. These fictional characters face challenges anyone may encounter, from gold-digging lotharios to neighbors who block shared hallways, plus challenges that mostly come with age: ingrown toenails, chemo, widowhood, arthritis, Meals on Wheels, and grandchildren you’re expected to devote yourself to, but which one character sees “small people trying to climb up and colonize her.” Katz’s characters are also always aware of class: from how easy it can be for a rich woman to divorce a boring husband, to sympathy for the tough job of a driver given a lousy van to transport seniors. These women aren’t simple-minded: as one says, “Life never gives you a chance to feel one pure emotion at a time.” One character’s annoyance at her partner’s habits vies with distaste or her own petty irritation. They may say “please” but think fuck you” when those in power patronize or ignore them. They value honesty (“there was plenty of chatter, mind you, just no candor”) and are not above engaging in power games. They also often encounter unexpected lust: one gets “shivery and hot” at a mere pat on the hand. Being from a generation that rarely talk about experiences involving their “privates,” they can be surprised by who and what turns them on. The six stories manage to cover a variety of sexual proclivities, and the sexual scenes are wonderfully elliptical (“he zeroed straight to the most sensitive crevices”) Sue Katz, as a seniors dance and exercise teacher, knows what seniors are capable of, and lets it all hang out in these six delicious stories.

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Writing Process Blog Tour http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/05/24/writing-process-blog-tour/ Sat, 24 May 2014 16:32:59 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/05/24/writing-process-blog-tour/ Earlier this month, on the National Writers Union book forum, I wrote that that all blog tours seemed to be expensive scams. I was mistaken: Sue Katz author of Lillian’s Last Affair, available on Amazon, responded that she was participating in a writer-organized Writing Process Blog Tour that is no scam; nor does it involve money.

A week later, Leslie Brunetta, who’d been invited by Katz to post on this tour (Katz also invited prolific writer/editor/publisher, Ken Wachsberger) and Adina Schecter to join the tour.

I of course agreed: Leslie’s quirky, essays inspire me, especially the way they spin philosophical and scientific insights together via metaphors that charm and clarify. One essay led to a book, Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging and Mating, co-authored by spider scientist Catherine L. Craig (Yale University Press).

So what am I working on?

I’m struggling right now to convey my experiences with and thoughts about anti-Semitic stereotypes. It will be the final piece for my third booklet of essays. I started the series started with What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2009) and then What Was I Thinking: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism (2012). They’re distributed by the racial justice book publisher, . www.cddbooks.com.Crandall Dostie and Douglass Books

Why do I write what I do?

Because I’m white. Because racism is a white problem. Because I grew up never talking about it, and not until the 1980s did I act to counter it.

My essay topics come out of the issues raised in the workshop I took and now co-lead in Cambridge (MA) called “White People Challenging Racism: Moving From Talk to Action.” The course galvanized me to action in every sphere of my life. It also made me look back at my life as a white person (“Growing Up Oblivious”), and explore my failures of mind, heart and deed, with angst laced with humor and, hopefully, insight.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

My essays ponder more than probe. When a question nags at me, I write to resolve it. One essay is about “aha” moments, when I’ve caught myself stereotyping. Another admits to misreading my mother’s attitudes toward eugenics, race and foster care. A third tackles the question: why read slave narratives? Others are about anti-racist jargon, nosy questions, and the power of a stare. One asks a question I continue to struggle with: as I listen intensely to others’ experiences, how can I stay honest to my own, although possibly flawed, understanding of reality?

I’m inspired by writers like Lois Mark Stalvey, who back in 1970 wrote The Education of a WASP, and more recently by Peggy McIntosh (Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack); Mab Segrest, (Memoir of a Race Traitor); Tim Wise (White Like Me), and Bernestine Singley (When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories); and most recently, by Debby Irving (Waking Up White) and Lee Mun Wah (Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say & Whites Won’t Ask About Racism).

How does my writing process work?

My ideas most often come to me in the midst of everyday life: as I drive in traffic that’s going 20 mph over the speed limit, as I race around a court with my racquet, pursing a ball, or as I stare into space at a noisy café. I jot down my idea fragments, and when enough snippets accumulate around a particular topic, like iron filings to a magnet, I freewrite. Then quickly, before my penciled scribbles become unintelligible, I type out my gangly sentences, ironing them out as I go. Then I revise. But since, in my view, cut-and-paste editing doesn’t give an essay a chance to “regrow” and deepen, I try to type each draft from the start. I never know how an essay will end: I write to find out.

Now, I hand off this blog tour to two writers I want you to know about:

Lisa Braxton is a kindred essay writer. I met her at a Meet the Agent event that my National Writers Union Boston Chapter co-sponsored with the Women’s National Book Association, and saw that she writes the kind of relationship essays worthy of The New York Times’ Modern Love column. We swapped essays via email and liked our mutual no-nonsense feedback. We’ve continued to run our essays past each other, and offer submission ideas. You can read some of her essays and short stories at www.lisabraxton.org. On her blog, she shares writer’s life experiences (with embedded advice), from planning a book party, to being part of a book club, to holding a book signing, to promoting your work, to the importance having a writing space of your own. Thanks to Lisa, I’ve learned about the indie bookstore, Frugal Books in Roxbury.

Terry Farish writes fiction for adults, young adults, and children. Her most recent book, The Good Braider, is written in free verse and in the voice of a Sudanese girl, but reads like a dramatic novel. Terry, who is white, has a long-term relationship with the Sudanese community in Portland (ME), and bases her story on their oral histories. “The Sudanese don’t talk about trauma, but I was a witness to it, and wrote this girl’s story as a way to honor her life.” She also produced a bilingual folktale, The Story of a Pumpkin, with Nepali-speaking refugees from Bhutan, and her next book will be a picture book about a Dominican family. Her blog www.terryfarish.com shows her commitment to community. On it, she invites students to write “the next chapter” to The Good Braider. She recommends other writers of “verse novels.” She also writes for the social justice and children’s literature blog, www.thepiratetree.com.

Speaking of community, participating in the Writing Process Blog Tour has made me feel part of a community of writers willing to share what, why and how we write, in the spirit of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” I now pass that pleasure on to Lisa and to Terry.

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Misremembering Dr. King http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/05/18/misremembering-dr-king/ Sun, 18 May 2014 13:41:08 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=424 Jennifer J. Yanco’s Misremembering Dr. King – Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is out from Indiana University Press. Don’t be scared off by her academic publisher: Yanco writes in clear, non-jargon language how “we” (she includes herself) so easily forget Dr. King’s core beliefs. It’s easy for us, she says, to remember Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience, which justice movements have used ever since. But it’s harder to remember his call for a guaranteed minimum income, his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his pro-union stance: he was assassinated while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike. She reminds us of “solutions” that backfired and kept power and money in white people’s hands: ending segregated schools led to the dismantling of Black-only schools, to thousands of Black teachers losing their jobs, to Black students being taught by white teachers who didn’t always want them to succeed. She also deals with what’s going on now: Trayvon Martin, the prison industrial complex, the Occupy movement, the fair pay struggles by fast food and other low wage workers. A great look back, and forward.

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Read This Memoir on Understanding Whiteness http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/02/28/read-this-memoir-on-understanding-whiteness/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2014/02/28/read-this-memoir-on-understanding-whiteness/#comments Fri, 28 Feb 2014 20:11:02 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=359 If you’ve been enlightened by Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, or intrigued by my white privilege-related essays, do read Debby Irving’s memoir, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, just out in 2014. The book’s cover is of a happy little girl at dinner, surrounded by silver, crystal, and gauzy curtains. The word WHITE stretches across the width of the book’s cover; the subtitle makes clear that although race isn’t real, biologically, the stories we tell ourselves about “race” result in powerful and damaging realities. Irving looks back at incidents in her life from age five on, as a way to understand her own race and class privileges, of which she was unaware until well into her 40s. When she did learn about race and class privilege, she didn’t do so entirely on her own. Throughout her memoir, she acknowledges the range of people she learned from, and profiles each in the mentor section of her website, www.debbyirving.com. She’s frank about her stereotyped thoughts; even as an adult she catches herself feeling mistrustful of her new chiropractor when she sees that he is a person of color. She examines her racial and class privilege in every area of her life but also learns that, since “nearly all of my thoughts are born of the culture in which racism is embedded,” it makes no sense to wallow in guilt. Irving manages to be witty about her own shortcomings, including missteps in speaking up against another’s racism: “I got all puffy and angry like I thought an anti-racist activist should.” As for class privilege, she learns most from her husband Bruce: his “talking to the nuns” story is particularly both funny and apt. She’s a great story teller, writing as if she’s talking directly to you. Her metaphors are as illuminating as Peggy McIntosh’s image of an invisible backpack full of unearned privileges, which white people carry wherever they go. Irving compares her years-long avoidance of authentic interaction with people of color to the electrical fencing systems people use to “zap” their dogs to train them to stay in the yard. “For decades the racially charged Zap sent me scampering back to my comfort zone. Rather than examining the source of the social tension I felt around people of color, I retreated to my social comfort zone – other white people.” I couldn’t put her book down because her stories made me think about similar incidents in my life. She ends each chapter with questions, in effect, asking the reader: “I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours.”

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My Winter Reading Weekend Recommendations http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2012/02/13/my-winter-reading-weekend-recommendations-2/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2012/02/13/my-winter-reading-weekend-recommendations-2/#comments Mon, 13 Feb 2012 17:12:30 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=309 When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka (Random, 2002). A slim, wondrous first novel with such straightforward, clean, yet vivid writing. A Berkeley CA immigrant family of Japanese heritage is sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor is bombed: “the mother,” “the boy,” and “the girl” are sent to a Utah camp, but “the father” is sent to a Lordsburg, NM camp for enemy aliens because he refused to say “yes” when asked if he would renounce allegiance to the Emperor, reasoning that doing so would imply any allegiance, which he didn’t. The description of each character’s experience and the feelings and thoughts that remained largely unsaid, is spare, specific, and moving. Her second novel was a 2011 National Book Award finalist.

My Dyslexia, by Philip Schultz. This Pulitzer Prize winning poet describes growing up being assumed, and believing himself, to be dumb: it was not until he was 58, when his 2nd grade son was diagnosed with dyslexia, that he realized that he too was dyslexic. He describes how his non-diagnosis led to him acting out, to covering in many ways, to loving books but disliking reading, to discovering ways to teach writing (he created a Writers Studio). Ironically, his publisher, Norton, seems to have a disability, as well: it let slip a misspelling (dyslexia) and a blurb implying that he won a Nobel Prize in science rather than poetry. Gail Mazur loaned me this book (she knows the author).

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (1998). A novel whose narrator shifts between five female characters, a Rashomon-like format that fascinates me. A fundamentalist Baptist minister takes his four daughters to an isolated village in the Congo, just as the Belgian colonizers (who used to cut off the hands of mineworkers who didn’t meet quota) hand over control. The people have just elected Patrice Lumumba, who the U.S. soon after arranges to be killed. The saga goes from 1959 to the 80s. It’s an excoriating vision of clueless, ineffectual Christian missionaries, of racial prejudice that personal interactions (except in the father’s case) break down, of individual women whose talents and goals and thoughts remain largely unsaid, but are eventually fulfilled. I wanted to finish the 530 page book by the end of our stay, so I raced through the last 100 pages, but the rich portrayal of each person’s experience and of the dynamics and consequences of colonialism will stay with me. Kingsolver funded (until recently, through the National Writers Union’s Service Organization) the Bellwether Prize: $25,000 plus publication of a fiction mss. with social justice themes.

Lone Holdout: A Memoir, by Linda Cox (Charles Street Press, 2010). Cox worked in the editorial department of an unnamed Boston publisher for 12 years, but after a successful class action sex discrimination case in which she was one of five named plaintiffs, she became co-owner of a Charles Street (Beacon Hill) bookstore. She describes serving on a jury for the first time and becoming the one jurist who doubted the prosecutions’ police witnesses. The book goes through the testimony, noting her questions and doubts. On trial was a young Dominican immigrant, charged with selling drugs and weapons violations. Her refusal to convict caused a hung jury: the young man was then retried and convicted. Convinced of the imprisoned man’s innocence, she rounded up pro bono lawyers and raised money to pay for private detectives. A judge finally granted a motion for a new trial, based on documentation of exculpatory evidence, and the inherent unreliability of single-witness identification cases. The arresting officer was proved to be a rogue cop who had been the subject of 27 internal investigations (for brutality, extorting money and sex from drug dealers and their girlfriends, etc.). He was convicted of attempted extortion and larceny and got a 4-6 year prison term. Cox is honest about the young man she defended: after 18 months in prison, he couldn’t get a job that paid a living wage. After taking a ride with someone who had drugs in car, he was sent to prison for a year and then deported to Dominican Republic. This case happened in 1988: it took Cox 20 years to write the book, which was almost made into the film, but in the end was self-published. I read self-published books by people I know because I like to make up my mind about their quality, and not react to mainstream-media hype. And I was proved right: her independently published book was chosen to be listed in Publishers Weekly new (as of last year) self-publishing section (25-pgs long) and one of 25 reviewed by Publishers Weekly!

Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention, by Amy Alexander (Beacon Press, 2011). Alexander used to live in Cambridge: I read her the book she co-wrote with Dr. Alvin Poussaint on African Americans and suicide, Lay My Burden Down. She wrote for the San Francisco Examiner while still in college, risked danger to cover the 1991 L.A. “riots” for the Sacramento Bee, only to have a copyeditor insert “savage” and “rampaging” into her otherwise carefully reported article. She later writes for the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. She names what the few publishers who effectively diversified their staffs did so: by tying news managers’ raises and bonuses, in part at least, to the rates of minority hiring and retention. She is frank in her evaluation of the National Association of Black Journalists, calling it “toothless” except for its professional training programs.

Learning From the Sixties: Memoir of an Organizer, by John Maher (self-published 2011). I don’t remember how I heard of my neighbor’s book but the title intrigued me: what can we learn from the Sixties? He grew up with an Irish-background poor to riches businessman father, which gave him some economic leeway to devote much of his life to organizing. He was an organizer of SDS, Vietnam Summer, Neighbor to Neighbor, and also taught in the Somerville and Boston schools. He was involved in the Progressive Labor Party, but eventually left it, considering it a cult. His FBI file is 2000 pages long (maybe in part because his brother was an open Communist Party member). To organize lower-income people, he decided to work in a Cambridge rubber manufacturing plant, but left because it felt inauthentic to hide his Harvard background. Each chapter ends with a list of principles/practices he learned in each organizing effort. He is frank about the mistakes he made, but also clear about one-on-one, door-to-door, in-person dialogue that he sees essential. I may have been one of the people he recruited to go door-to-door to rally opposition to the Vietnam War (and later to get rent controlled passed in Cambridge, although I don’t remember him, which fits one or his campaign organizing principles – to listen more than direct.

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My Food For Thought: 12 Books I Recommend http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/12/25/my-food-for-thought-12-books-i-recommend/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2011/12/25/my-food-for-thought-12-books-i-recommend/#comments Mon, 26 Dec 2011 00:41:42 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=303 The Call , by Yannick Murphy (Harper, 2011). The format of his novel – it’s written as a veterinarian’s daily log, intrigued me. I started reading but wondered how a logbook can possibly “work” as a novel. How can the author develop a plot? But she did, and her format elucidates the main character’s psychology. The author‘s husband is a Vermont vet, and the book was a 2011 National Book Award finalist in fiction.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka (Knopf, 2011) another 2011 National Book Award fiction finalist. It, too, is written unconventionally: in the first person plural (“We”). I doubted this would work in a novel, but it does. This the story of “picture brides” brought from Japan to the U.S. early in the 20th century, by Japanese men seeking wives. The “we” form lets us see their commonality but also to appreciate their diversity, and their individual ways of coping.

A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle. Jon and I both read this raucus novel while we were in Dublin. [Jon “It gave me a real feeling for what life in Dublin was like, and fit what I saw there”]. Henry and his brother Victor are street urchins whose one-legged assassin dad and crazy, alcoholic mother, had more kids than they can care for. The boys turn to robbery and are eventually recruited into Michael Collins’ revolutionaries. They take part in the Post Office rebellion against the British, and then face retaliation. Jon will read another in Doyle’s novel series on our post-Christmas reading weekend.

The Irish Famine, by Peter Grey (Thames & Hudson). This book was an eye-opener: the Irish Famine was not just a matter of a failed potato harvest, as I had always thought. The famine could have been averted if farmers were allowed to grow other crops but the British plantation owners insisted that they export all non-potato foods to Britain, while 1 million Irish died of starvation and sickness, and another 1 million fled the county for the U.S., cutting Ireland’s population in half and leading to a long period of poverty, which may have affected my great-grandmother, Winifred Flanagan Moore, born in 1850 in Mayo County.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Reb ecca Skloot (Crown, 2010). Scientists have been using “HeLa” cells since the 1950s. This is the story of an African American woman whose cells, after she died of cervical cancer, were reproduced by scientists who went on to develop the polio vaccine and other medical advances. This was before informed consent regulations, so it’s also the history of bad scientific/medical practices, especially towards people of color, an example of scientists’ incompetence at communicating with non-scientists, and the story of Lacks’ daughter’s determined to understand the science her mother’s cells were part of, and to have that contribution honored.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). A short novel set in New Jersey and in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. It made me understand the epidemic that caused our mother to make us wear gloves whenever we went to “the city” and to take us to the country – not just for fun but to keep us safe. The novel also shows how polio victim “cripples’ were hidden away and how suspected “carriers” were shunned.

Knowing Jesse: A Mother’s Story of Grief, Grace, and Everyday Bliss, by Marianne Leone (Simon & Schuster, 2010). The author spoke about her memoir at a National Writers Union program. What impressed me was the ferocity of her love and determination that her son Jesse, born with cerebral palsy, which left him paraplegic, subject to seizures and unable to speak, be recognized as smart, talented, and capable to being mainstreamed at school, where he excelled at both Latin and poetry. The author is married to the actor, Chris Cooper (they live in our area).

Seeing Patients: Unconscious Bias in Health Care, by Augustus A. White III, M.D. , with David Chanoff (Harvard University Press, 2011). Dr. White is Professor of Medical Education and Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School and the first African American department chief at Harvard’s teaching hospitals. He shows how unconscious bias persists and leads to gender, race and age health disparities. He reports double-blind studies: one in which when men and women report similar heart symptoms and stresses in their lives, doctors are more likely to believe that the men had organize heart disease but that the women’s stress was due to psychological disorders. Another: doctors in hospitals call white patients Mr. or Mrs. and draw curtains to protect their privacy during breast exams, but those same doctors call Black patients by their first names and do not bother to draw privacy curtains. Dr. White also describes bias he faced in the course of his career.

Finding Oprah’s Roots – Finding Your Own, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Crown, 2007) I just finished this fascinating account (also shown on TV) of the search for Oprah’s ancestors, via documents and DNA. It made me realize the significance for African Americans of recovering – and honoring – and being inspired by – ancestors who managed to get an education, buy land, and build careers, despite the barriers of legal and interpersonal racism. It made me want to know more about my ancestors: to find inspiring models among them.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander (New Press, 2010). Alexander was a keynote speaker at an anti-racism conference I attended. She documents how President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” targeted communities of color and put enormous numbers of Blacks and Latinos in prison: how prosecutors pile on charges to get these men to accept guilty pleas in exchange for shorter jail time, not telling them that once they get out, a felony charge will prevent them from getting jobs, form voting (in many states), from food stamps, from public housing, from getting licenses in many professions, from serving on juries, from educational opportunities.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins (Back Bay Books, 2010). A book about what it for women in the 60s, when stewardesses got fired if they married or aged; when Radcliffe’s male president told students: your education will prepare you to be “splendid wives and mothers”; when doctors who found a breast malignancy asked husbands to sign the permission to operate “because women were too emotionally and irrationally tied to their breasts.” And about ground-breakers who challenged those views.

Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say & Whites Won’t Ask About Racism, by Lee Mun Wah. Community therapist and documentary filmmaker ( “The Color of Fear” and “If These Halls Could Talk”) collected a range of responses to questions he asked people of color (eg: “What would you say to whites if you could tell them the truth about racism?”) and questions he asked white people (eg. “What are some of the things you are afraid to say to people of color?”). I’m one of the people he quotes. www.stiryfryseminars.com

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Books I Read Recently and Recommend http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2010/11/28/books-i-read-recently-and-recommend/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2010/11/28/books-i-read-recently-and-recommend/#comments Sun, 28 Nov 2010 15:22:08 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=224 Here are the best fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read recently, most during one of our “reading weekends,” when Jon and I went away to read, this time in a sweet little B & B, Acorn’s Hope,Great Barrington (MA).  

 Try to Remember, by Iris Gomez (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, 2010). This novel “grabbed” me from the very beginning: I read it straight through. The main character is a Columbian immigrant girl whose father loses jobs, obsessively composes demand letters and forces his daughter to type them, has violent and paranoid rages. The girl’s mother, won’t admit the problem or let the kids talk about it outside immediate family, but resorts to giving the father Dramamine, calling it vitamins, to calm him down. Meanwhile, the mother and kids take jobs that they hide from the “proud” father so they won’t lose their home. The author is an immigration lawyer and must be aware of all the family problems that immigrants may hide from agencies that are supposed to help them.

Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb, by David Kushner, (Walker, 2009). This non-fiction book describes how the Levitt brothers built housing “affordable for all” and yet excluded Black families, proclaiming, “I’m not prejudiced: I couldn’t be – I’m Jewish – but I can’t accept blacks because I couldn’t get white customers.” One Jewish (and Communist) family does help the first Black family buy into the whites-only suburban development, and endure the violence and  harassment that followed, fomented by racist neighbors and the KKK. I can would not deign to call myself an “anti-racist activist” after seeing what these two determined, principled and ground-breaking families went through.

Persian Girls by Nahid Rachlin (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). A memoir by an Iranian woman who as an infant was given to her aunt, who’d had no children because of her husband’s infertility, which couldn’t be acknowledged — she was made to blame. After 9 years, Nahid’s father grabs her to take her back to “real” mother, who had been married at 9, bore 10 kids, two of whom had died, but who didn’t want or like Nahid. As a teen, Nahid read American and European books, many of which could get family arrested; she also resisted marriage, begging her father to let her study in America. He finally relents, and she goes to the U.S., where she attends a St. Louis “finishing school” college, but suffers from knowing little English and making few friends. Her father expects her to return to Iran to marry but she sends him a letter, saying she’s staying to go to graduate school. She supports herself, barely, with odd jobs and a scholarship, manages to become writer, and marries a Jewish man, Back home, her sisters have unhappy marriages and give up their passions for theater, true love, or children. By middle age, Nahid accepts her family, in part because of secrets she discovers about her mother, and herself.

To Awake My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance, by Peter P. Hinks (Pennsylvania State, 1997/2000). A dense history/biography of a fascinating man: a free Black man who galvanized resistance to slavery with a 1829 tract calling on free and enslaved Blacks to demand an immediate end to slavery. He distributed his Appeal in the South via Black seamen, and deeply influenced Douglass, Garrison, and Maria Stewart. But he’s been “disappeared” from history. A Community Change Inc committee of Boston legislators and historians is trying to bring him back into prominence. I’d started reading this book before but had flagged – I soldiered on during my reading weekend and was riveted by the last 2 chapters. I wish Hinks had started with them!

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The Warmth of Other Suns: Bk Review http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2010/10/07/the-warmth-of-other-suns-bk-review/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2010/10/07/the-warmth-of-other-suns-bk-review/#comments Thu, 07 Oct 2010 21:03:25 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2010/10/07/the-warmth-of-other-suns-bk-review/ Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns – The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a great narrative journalism saga, told through the stories of three African Americans — who were among the millions of Southern Blacks who went North (one in 30s, one in 40s, one in 50s) to escape white supremacist threats against them, or in the case of a surgeon, to be free to practice his medical specialty. Shows how they may have escaped virulent Jim Crow violence and exclusion, but how in the North they continued to be blocked by insidious Northern-style racism). It’s being said that it will get the Pulitzer Prize, tho Wilkerson has already won a Pulitzer Prize for her individual reporting. If you picture Jim Crow as being only about segregated schools, buses and water fountains, this book will show you the extensiveness of petty humiliations that stifled African Americans in body and soul. Wilkerson compares the movement of Black southerners to the North to European immigration.

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Recommended Reading http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2010/09/09/recommended-reading/ http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/2010/09/09/recommended-reading/#comments Fri, 10 Sep 2010 00:29:05 +0000 http://www.barbarabeckwith.net/?p=213 Here are a dozen fiction and non-fiction books that my husband Jon and I read this summer and want to share. We read most of them during two Reading Weekends, when we go away to simply read. Here’s what we read in a sweet little B & B called Acorn’s Hope Great Barrington (MA).  

My 4 best books:

Try to Remember, by Iris Gomez (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group, 2010). This novel “grabbed” me from the very beginning: I read it straight through. The main character is a Columbian immigrant girl whose father loses jobs, obsessively composes demand letters and forces his daughter to type them, has violent and paranoid rages. The girl’s mother, won’t admit the problem or let the kids talk about it outside immediate family, but resorts to giving the father Dramamine, calling it vitamins, to calm him down. Meanwhile, the mother and kids take jobs that they hide from the “proud” father so they won’t lose their home. The author is an immigration lawyer and must be aware of all the family problems that immigrants may hide from agencies that are supposed to help them.

Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb, by David Kushner, (Walker, 2009). This non-fiction book describes how the Levitt brothers built housing “affordable for all” and yet excluded Black families, proclaiming, “I’m not prejudiced: I couldn’t be – I’m Jewish – but I can’t accept blacks because I couldn’t get white customers.” One Jewish (and Communist) family does help the first Black family buy into the whites-only suburban development, and endure the violence and  harassment that followed, fomented by racist neighbors and the KKK. I can would not deign to call myself an “anti-racist activist” after seeing what these two determined, principled and ground-breaking families went through.

Persian Girls by Nahid Rachlin (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). A memoir by an Iranian woman who as an infant was given to her aunt, who’d had no children because of her husband’s infertility, which couldn’t be acknowledged — she was made to blame. After 9 years, Nahid’s father grabs her to take her back to “real” mother (who’d been married at 9, bore 10 kids, two of whom had died, and didn’t want or like Nahid. As a teen, Nahid read American and European books that could get family arrested; she also resisted marriage, begging her father to let her study in America. He finally relents, and she goes to the U.S., where she attends a St. Louis “finishing school” college, but suffers from knowing little English and making few friends. Her father expects her to return to Iran to marry but she sends him a letter, saying she’s staying to go to graduate school. She supports herself, barely, with odd jobs and a scholarship, manages to become writer, and marries a Jewish man, Back home, her sisters have unhappy marriages and give up their passions for theater, true love, or children. By middle age, Nahid accepts her family, in part because of secrets she discovers about her mother, and herself.

To Awake My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance, by Peter P. Hinks (Pennsylvania State, 1997/2000). A dense history/biography of a fascinating man: a free Black man who galvanized resistance to slavery with a 1829 tract calling on free and enslaved Blacks to demand an immediate end to slavery. He distributed his Appeal in the South via Black seamen, and deeply influenced Douglass, Garrison, and Maria Stewart. But he’s been “disappeared” from history. A Community Change Inc committee of Boston legislators and historians is trying to bring him back into prominence. I’d started reading this book before but had flagged – I soldiered on during my reading weekend and was riveted by the last 2 chapters (which he should have put first)

Here are Jon’s 4 best books: clearly, he’s more intellectual than I am!

Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (1920).  Wharton’s novel is about the upper classes in NYC and how a maybe “disreputable” and free-spirited relative comes to town, heats up a man who is engaged to someone else, and roils up the members of this class.  Tragic, as the man begins to see outside the bounds of his culture, but the relationship is thwarted.

Morris Bishop’s Petrarch and His World (1963).  A life of Petrarch with many extended quotations from his work and poems.  Bishop presents him as the forerunner of modernity, the Renaissance, precursor of Shakespeare’s poetry, breaking out of the Middle Ages.  The “first”poet laureate of Rome after a long hiatus. Lots of characters — Boccaccio, Chaucer, the tyrants Luchino Visconti, La Scala.  Also, continuous war, particularly in Italy, and the corruption of the popes, etc. Connections for me were Fontaine de Vaucluse, Avignon, Mont Ventoux, Naples, etc.

By the Waters of Manhattan  by Charles Reznikff. Autobiographical novel about  Russian Jewish immigrants in NYC, the first half is in Russia.  Much of the second half is about the son of one of the immigrants who opens a cool bookstore.

Jumpha Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.  Read less than half but liked the complicated parent/child relationships that were both particular to Indian immigrants but also common to people of all cultures.

Anna Gavalda, L’Echappee Belle about sisters squabbling with their sister-in-law together (2001).

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