Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz ~ Review
Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz ~ Review
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
The people on the island are black. And, my God, the hopelessness of teaching in a black school cut off from society by water, is an agony few people have experienced. (p. 234)
The Water is Wide came to me in an exchange with one of my nieces. We’ve started sending each other books we’ve read and want the other one to enjoy. “He’s kinda big deal around here [in Charleston, SC].” I had no idea.
If the only book Conroy ever wrote was The Water is Wide, he’d be a big deal to me. Because The Water is Wide resonates as though it was written last year, not in 1972 about experiences Conroy had teaching black students on an island separated from the rest of the world by a tidal river.
1969’s young teacher could be any teacher today. Passionate about changing his students’ outlook, teaching them to use their minds for more than just remembering the alphabet and the multiplication tables.
What he encounters is heart breaking. A black community with nothing, literally. A two-room schoolhouse filled with children K-12 who cannot read, do not know their alphabet, much less they are American citizens and their island is part of a country called USA. These children, and their parents, live a hardscrabble existence with no plumbing, no telephones, no books, and no hope.
It sounds like so many students in our contemporary era. Inner city kids who get passed on without learning anything on the way. Urban kids, of all races, with problems too large to be handled by a school bureaucracy still dominated by men.
I’ve seen first hand the poverty which keeps our children from getting any kind of education aside from survival. I’ve also seen the well-meaning white liberals who do the wrong thing because all their knowledge about kids like the ones in Conroy’s book is theoretical. On the other hand, I’ve seen what happens when no one wants to be bothered, only paying attention to the star athletes nurtured to get a scholarship at a big college and then go pro.
Conroy’s story is so familiar. He writes with accuracy about the stupidity of bureaucracy, the banal finality of racism, and the incredibly foolish ways willing students and passionate teachers are ignored.
There are many fascinating stories about how Conroy connected with his students, and their families. The reader goes on field trips off the island with them, flabbergasted at the things one takes for granted as common decency and sense. A little boy peeing in the middle of a square raises an eyebrow, until one realizes that on the island everyone pees where they are when they need. Their propriety is different.
Betsy DeVos would be horrified at the way these children behave. Horrified, and quick to throw some racist shade disguised in politically correct verbiage about school vouchers, charter schools and school choice. Completely missing the point.
35 years after this book was published, there’s just as much to be angry at, and baffled by. In 2017 we should know better, we should do better. Apparently, “we” don’t know and don’t care. Two days in to the new administration and it’s clear there’s a lot to resist coming our way. Pat Conroy’s book, The Water is Wide, is a reminder of just how bad it was, and still is, and just how much farther we have to go to reach an educated critical mass who can think their way through the many complex problems facing the world. Education may be the key, but people like Betsy DeVos are the lock.
For the Yamacraw children I can say little. I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly or altered the inexorable fact they were imprisoned by the very circumstances of their birth.
The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates review
Hate gives identity. (p. 60)
I rarely say this about any writer I read. Clearly, I enjoy many authors and have learned quite a bit from reading. But I rarely say I think their work is important to anyone but me. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is important, and it should be read by everyone.
Written in the form of a letter to his son, Coates explains what it means to be a black male in America. The fragility of a black man’s body, based on the need to know how to navigate the physical world without incurring the wrath of anybody along the way.
It was hard to for me to imagine how fraught life could be for someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates. How could I? My experiences growing up white in mostly safe neighborhoods where I could concentrate on enriching my life would never have prepared me for understanding what it’s like to be black, and male, in America.
To yell ‘black-on-black crime’ is to shoot a man and then shame him for bleeding. (p. 111)
There’s a lot to think about here, and Coates does it so elegantly and eloquently. Between the World and Me changed my understanding . Having to explain to his son what to it’s like to grow up black and male in America, to explain why his parents are hard on him, or why their reactions often seem overly harsh, is to be uncommonly self-aware.
Never have I read such a powerful work. Never. His description of navigating his Baltimore neighborhood was rife with literal boundaries and secret codes, any violation of which could get him beat up. Ta-Nehisi Coates attempts to make sense of the senseless. While explaining to his son, it becomes clear that there is a sort of sense in the chaos, but only to those who are so invested in making sure the “other” oppressed.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work is important, his words are important. They’re important because they point to the nonsensical and say, “How can this make sense?”
The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy ~ review
Foy by Gordon Atkinson
“If there’s a sea turtle flapping around on the table you have to deal with it. (p. 150)”
Gordon Atkinson’s writing has always resonated with me. There’s such a deep honesty and thoughtfulness in his work. All of his books now reside in my library and I am so pleased to add Foy to it.
Truth is hard. It can be cold and jagged. Foy faces a truth which is similar to each of our truths in ways we may not expect. His struggle with the hard questions is a fascinating story which opened my heart more, both to myself and those who flail trying to find meaning in our lives.
Title: Lock In
Author: John Scalzi
Lock in is what happens when a flu pandemic turns weird. Some lucky survivors become carriers. Even more lucky survivors have a paralyzed central nervous system, keeping their minds alive but unable to move. Millions die from Haden’s Syndrome.
FBI agent Chris Shane is a Haden. He’s also rich enough to be able to afford top of the line “threeps,” an outer shell which connects to a neural network in the brain and allows for movement. A Haden’s body remains in a sling being taken care of. Hadens don’t actually move their bodies, their brains move the threep, and can do other high tech wizardry.
This is a murder mystery, police procedural, sci-fi thriller. With over tones of inequality (on several levels) and political maneuvering to give non-Haden sufferers access to the same high tech. Then people can make even more money.
I have a running debate with a friend who does not read science fiction. In this debate, she thinks things like threeps are just too weird. She can’t relate. And that’s okay. My side of the debate is that none of this, of course, is weird. It’s just different. Neither of us can decide if it’s because I’ve read a lot of science fiction/fantasy, or if it’s just my easy-going nature.
Either way, John Scalzi’s world-building always seem real and credible to me. Even if the bodies of old people are genetically re-engineered to be younger and more powerful (Old Man’s War), or it’s people adapting to being locked in to a body with no functioning central nervous system.
I wouldn’t mind if there was a series featuring agents Chris Shane and Leslie Vann. It would be very interesting to see what happens in this world created by John Scalzi as it evolves and adapts to new laws, and new attitudes.
Apparently, there was a big kerfuffle over something in the book I didn’t even notice until I read about it. And when I thought about it, I spend more time thinking about the automatic assumption I had made, rather than the thing being kerfuffled. But you’ll have to figure that out on your own.
Title: Sense and Sensibility
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Jane Austen’s tale of the family Dashwood, and their prospects after husband and father, Henry, dies is a commentary on the class system in England.
Austen really does not like the way in which the society she lives in sets expectations for each other, most especially, the young, unmarried women.
While first published in 1811, Austen’s themes resonate across two centuries. Women are held to impossible standards, and always found wanting. Austen’s main theme is that of sense vs. “sensitivity.”
Is it better to be sensible and logical where emotions, and love, are concerned? Better to not show emotion and to explain hurt by others away by the use of logic? Or is being sensitive to others’ feelings and wearing one’s heart on the sleeve a better approach?
While reading Sense and Sensibility, I kept wondering about “the middle path.” One in which both sisters are allowed to be both logical and show their emotions, rather than this tug of war of trying to measure up to society’s expectations.
Which, of course, is the point. There is no “middle path.” Women must pick a path and stick with it in order to please both those of her class and any potential suitors. Things are better in some ways now, but it’s still difficult for both men and women to live up to the expectations laid upon them by rigid societal mores.
Austen is worth reading, both for her commentary and for her sharp observations into human nature.
Title: Masculinity in Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers
Watching Breaking Bad was one of the most entertaining times in my life. Such fantastic story-telling about a wimpy high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and needs to find a way to support his family after his death.
Walter White goes from chem teacher to badass drug kingpin in the course of the series. There are no truly likable characters in Breaking Bad, but there are sympathetic characters. Characters with which we can identify in some way because of their circumstances. Sympathizing does not mean liking, it’s the simple recognition of, “Yep, been there. Understand what you’re doing bro. My choice was different, but you be you.”
Masculinity in Breaking Bad is what happens when a bunch of liberal arts Ph. D.s, each with a particularly granular specialty, look deeply at the male characters. It can be a dense read.
This is not to say it’s not an interesting read. There are multiple ways of exploring the themes of Breaking Bad, and masculinity is an obvious one since the story is male-driven, and centers on one man who is forced to redefine himself because of his diagnosis.
Eight essays, and two round table discussions, cover the topics from Walt’s fatherhood, manhood, business acumen, and legacy to my favorite, “Men in Control: Panopticism and Performance.” Basically, Jeffrey Reid Pettis uses French Philosopher Michel Foucault‘s theory of panopticism (in Discipline and Punishment) to the use of surveillance, and reactions to surveillance, in Breaking Bad.
Panopticism is a fascinating concept in which a prison is built in such a way that everyone (including staff) can be under surveillance at any time. When there is no way to know when an individual is being watched, he begins to perform as though being watched. Here, Pettis delves into the performance art which comes out of the knowledge each character has that he may be watched.
It is a rich essay, dense and chewy. But the concept of always being watched is one of which none of us is completely unaware. How does Walt react to knowing this? What lengths does he go to show those he imagines watching that he is “the one who knocks?”
While I did find Masculinity in Breaking Bad interesting in many ways, I can only recommend this book to those truly interested in this type of close reading and, who don’t mind working for their read.
Title: Minor Characters
Author: Joyce Johnson
Publisher: Washington Square Books
The women didn’t mind, or, if they did, they never said – not until years later. (p. 218)
To be a woman is difficult in any era, but to be an independent, creative, curious woman is especially difficult. In the 1950’s, after World War II, gender roles were supposed to be fairly well established. But things were starting to rumble a little. Change was stirring.
Really, the story of the Beat Generation begins in the late 1940s, when a confluence of personalities and talents converged at Columbia University in New York City. It was there the big names began to meet and discuss a new way of writing, and of being.
A teenaged girl named Joyce Johnson lived in a “respectable” neighborhood with her “respectable” parents. And, around the age of thirteen, this “respectable” girl rebelled. She went to places young girls shouldn’t go, and met people who opened her mind. These people led to the Beats; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among them
Minor Characters is Johnson’ memoir centered around the years 1957-58, when she was Kerouac’s sometime girlfriend. She tells a story many can relate to, being attracted to someone who can’t reciprocate at the same level.
Much has been written about the Beat Generation writers. The men, that is. Not so much has been written about the women. Especially not much about the way women were treated. Johnson’s story about being in the middle of that maelstrom is fascinating.
She relates how women were discounted by the men. The usual story; taken for granted, belittled, not taken seriously, etc. etc. Her story could be the story of so many women, but what makes it stand out is that it happened with a group of men who are revered for their open-minded views about all sorts of things. They were especially interested in changing the rules of writing, and literature. But women were only for amusement, or housekeeping.
And as Joyce Johnson, reiterates, the women stood for it. Because as many generations of women will say, “we thought that’s what we had to do.” To find love, to find a life partner, meant a woman had to put up with the meanness of her beau’s foibles.
Here is a book in which the woman, after two years of evasion and half-truths, said, “No. Go away” to Jack Kerouac. Joyce Johnson told Jack Kerouac, she was tired of his crap and to leave her alone. Brava! and Well Done!
The pain of this decision is clear, as is the need for something healthier, something more equitable, more loving. To be sure, the most famous names were men who were hard to love, under any circumstances. Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady; all charismatic and difficult. Horrible in their actions, negligent in their search for self-awareness. Of them all, Ginsberg is the one who consistently appears to exert a great deal of effort to become familiar with himself.
While the Beats were changing the way America read and wrote, literature, Joyce Johnson was changing the way women looked at the men with whom they were in relationships. Her story is well-told, and a fascinating look at the minor characters who also played a part in the Beat Generation.