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?”
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.
If I listed every quote which resonated with me in this book, I would be quoting the entire thing.
Anne Lamott’s writing speaks to me. Her complete honesty, no doubt. The way she speaks her truth about her life. The words she strings together to make me understand how she feels. I recognize myself in some of what she writes about.
That scared, mixed up woman who can barely keep herself going, much less be expected to do anything else. The woman who panics for what appears to be no good reason to others, but is a very good reason to her. Like, “OHMYGAWD, I have no money, I can’t buy the groceries I want, I’m going to have to move my books to the underpass, I’m going to DIE. The world is going to END!” Yup, that’s me.
Of course, in my clearer moments I know being poor doesn’t mean the end of the world or anything dire. It just means no money, and reminding myself that the universe is constantly taking care of me, even when it’s hard to see through the panicked fog.
Her junk food binges in the essay titled “The Muddling Glory of God?” Frequent flyer here. Her fraught and confusing relationship with her mother in “Dandelions?” I still have the scars.
And while I teared up over Anne’s life and the way my heart hurt for both of us, I keep thinking, “She lived through it. She got to a good place in her life where she can afford groceries and lives in a nice home and has a wonderful community around her.” I can live through it too.
She makes me think. And then she makes me giggle as I think about how I might also panic because my dog ran off out of sight on our walk. Although I think I’d be more worried about the rattlesnakes.
And while I was reading, I was reminded how oddly grace works in my life. How, really, it’s not so bad. How when I’m not paying attention and wallowing around in my own mire, grace comes along and does something unexpected. Then I feel all right and ready to keep going.
If I could ask Anne Lamott one thing, it would be if she would be my life sponsor. One of my tribe to hold me when my face is red from crying and snot is running over my lips. One who will take my hand, look me straight in the eye, and say, “You will get through this.”
Her books have literally been life changing for me. bird by bird taught me about the discipline of writing, of being creative, every day. Whether I want to or not. Grace (Eventually) reminds me to wait patiently for the grace which envelops me and takes care of me. Reading Anne Lamott is like meeting a new, old friend with whom I could share an afternoon talking about the deep things in life, while cracking each other up.
Full disclosure: This was an ARC (Advanced Readers’ Copy) given to me through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers’ program. In exchange, I agreed to give an honest review.
“Mosque is not a good word. It is like mosquito. It is taken from the Mexican language. You know we do not like mosquito. This is deeply propaganda …” Herry Nurdi to Sadanand Dhume (p. 136)
It’s all too easy to point and laugh while dismissing the ignorance of people. But we should take care because this sort of ignorance from religious extremists (not just Muslim) is what fuels the fires of intolerance.
Sadanand Dhume’s My Friend the Fanatic, is filled with examples of stubborn ignorance and hypocritical thinking. It is also filled with examples of how this fuels the move against equal and civil rights in favor of sharia law. So far, this could be the story of any nation struggling with identity politics.
But Dhume’s book is set in Indonesia and reflects what he encounters in his travels under the auspices of Herry Nurdi, editor of a Islamic fundamentalist magazine and fan of Osama bin Laden.
The extreme differences between secular life and religious ideology are most striking in the first section focusing on events in Java. A pop star who has popularized a dance move called drilling (something akin to twerking), a Muslim televangelist, and what passes for literati are in stark contrast with those who live in abject poverty living in shacks with dirt floors begging to support their family.
It took over one hundred pages for My Friend the Fanatic to become cohesive. Not only were the familiar stories of poverty, ignorance and zealotry told but so were the struggle for identity as a nation. Although Dhume begins with the 2002 bombings in Bali, the story begins earlier in Indonesia’s history, with Indonesia winning independence from the Dutch in 1949.
Simplistically put, Indonesia’s problems can be seen as the growing pains of a young nation searching for identity. What is it to be Indonesian? I found My Friend the Fanatic to be an interesting look into these issues from the point of view of an atheist journalist from India seeking answers from Islamic fundamentalists fighting against secular values.
Dhume writes of the stark contrasts in Indonesia and the conflicts in politics and ideology. His work has made me curious about Indonesia and its history.
I don’t know how to argue with people who cannot question themselves, who don’t say the words, “I was wrong.” It’s like playing football with someone who says, “Only I can score goals.” There’s no basis for conversation. (p. 210)
Dhume says this to a Muslim woman on a ferry who insists sharia law is good for everyone because she says so.
It’s easy to pick on people who have little to no education, live in abject poverty and whose survival often depends on help from groups whose politics and ideologies don’t match ours. But what then to make of those who have had access to education but are still moored to an extreme ideology like sharia law?
In the case of Indonesia, as I suspect in other countries struggling for identity, those with an education weren’t educated to western standards. They may claim a degree in industrial engineering, most likely from a Muslim school funded by Saudi petrodollars.
In these final pages, Dhume visits Ambon, one of the largest cities in eastern Indonesia. Here, the violence has been rampant. Indonesian against remnants of Dutch and Portuguese colonialism, Muslims against Christians and secularists. Girls in modest uniform skirts killed for being immodest, women against women because the Jilbāb is not also hijab.
Again, poverty is rife. The second best hotel in Ambon, which Dhume and Nurdi stay in is perhaps the worst place they have stayed in during this journey. A bucket stands outside the hotel room door to catch the water dripping from above. Nurdi shows their guide from Ambon packages containing letterhead envelopes and stationery. The guide is very impressed because such things are considered a luxury in Ambon.
Related in these pages is more of the same grim story. Poverty, politics, a search for personal and national identity. Are they laid-back, anything goes Indonesian or secular and democratic? Or are they some version of strict Muslim which takes a dim view of anyone not adhering to their strictures?
Nurdi, and those Dhume interviews, continue to show their lack of education and critical thinking and the shrill anti-Western ideology their version of Islam preaches. Everything is a CIA plot, or a Jewish plot, and/or a combination of both.
This is not an easy question to answer, which is the right way? Each faction believes they know and try to force that on others. The rich get richer and are lax in morals. The poor turn to those who will help, regardless of ideology. The price of that help is learning, accepting, and spreading those ideas.
In his prologue, Dhume returns to Jakarta two years later. He catches up with many of the people from earlier in the book. Then he brings up an important point for discussion: what does moderation look like? Is a moderate Muslim one who accepted the same ideas about human rights as the Korean Christian or a Buddhist from Singapore? Or was a Muslim moderate who was “simply” against flying airplanes into buildings? (p 267)
My Friend the Fanatic cannot answer the question of how Indonesia has become the biggest Muslim country in the world in just one generation. At best it shows us that the issue is complex, as in many other countries. Indonesia’s unique history plays an integral part in trying to find answers. Westerners with centuries of independence and invading colonialist histories may just now beginning to understand what the consequences are for countries whose independence can be counted in decades, not centuries.
It’s too easy to spout something about political “growing pains,” which is true to some extent. But it’s also naive to overlook that as one of the factors which has made Indonesia such a violent incubator for Muslim extremists.
Dhume asks the same questions experts are asking? How did this come about and how do we stop the intolerance?
“Mosque is not a good word. It is like mosquito. It is taken from the Mexican language. You know we do not like mosquito. This is deeply propaganda …” Herry Nurdi to Sadanand Dhume (p. 136)
Herry Nurdi has a lot of “secret information,” he uses to bolster his claims; political, economic and ideological.
Things are starting to feel more coherent to me now. As I read, the struggles of Indonesia becomes eerily familiar. Indonesia’s story could be any non-Western country’s story. The search for identity as demonstrated by the many competing influences of historical tradition, politics, religion, etc.
In this story, as in so many others, the lack of educations and knowledge really is the heart of the problem. At least to me. Poverty, abject poverty, and the need to belong to some group which can offer comfort in any small way, even if that way is a better life in the next, keeps people going.
If the group offering you comfort derides Western values and education, you will accept that as reality. It’s a skewed reality to outsiders, maybe even other Indonesians, but it’s the one which gives you comfort and helps you survive another day.
My Friend the Fanatic is filled with ridiculous quotes like the one above. In the second hundred pages, Dhume and Nurdi have left Java and are traveling through Sulawesi, Borneo, Riau, and The Moluccas. I’m reading about a country still trying to throw off the influence of Dutch imperialism and find a way to truly develop an independent style of politics and culture which can encompass everyone.
The dictatorship of Suharto and Sukharno have also left their marks. Into this vacuum, militant groups have stepped in. The Muslim extremists are just one set of groups.
In asking for this book, my hope was that I would gain more insight into Islamic extremism. I don’t know much about Indonesia, so thought this would be one way to learn more about both.
Let me just say that while I plan on finishing the book, it is difficult to connect to. Each chapter reads like a vignette about the people the author meets in the places he goes. The one thread through these vignettes is Herry Nurdi, managing editor of the Islamist publication Sabili, who makes many of the introductions for Sadanand Dhume.
These 100 pages contain a prologue about Dhume’s experience in Bali when the bombings of 2002 occurred. An Indonesian Islamic extremist group was held responsible.
Chapter One is about the travels around Java meeting and talking with people about Islam, nationalism, Suharto, Sukarno, and culture. It is a whirlwind tour of VIP clubs featuring pop stars who write graphic poems about sex, drag performers, an Islamic televangelist, and Herry Nurdi. Just to name a few.
There’s so little context going from one part to the next that I feel lost a lot, and find myself asking “Now who is this guy?” It’s my hope that some of this will start to come together later in the book. There’s a lot of information to sift through.
But most important, we can change our culture. We can work together to build a culture that is less complicated and more nurturing, less violent and sexualized and more growth-producing. Our daughters [children] deserve a society in which all their gifts can be developed and appreciated. (p. 13)
In early adolescence girls learn how important appearance is in defining social acceptability. Attractiveness is both a necessary and sufficient condition for girls’ success. This is an old, old problem. Helen of Troy didn’t launch a thousand ships because she was a hard worker. Juliet wasn’t loved for her math ability. (p. 40)
Girls are trained to be less than who they really are. They are trained to be what the culture wants of its young women, not what they themselves want to become. (p. 44)
I first read Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, Ph. D. when it came out in 1994. Even then I was searching for me. I was very confused about being female and looking for answers that would make me worthy in the eyes of society. I missed what Dr. Pipher was saying. Society is not the place to turn to for answers, it will only confuse you and set standards which are impossible to meet. I wasn’t ready to hear that I was good enough on my own, and screw society.
Twenty years later, I returned to this book in search of answers on how to be a good auntie to the children in my life who have been raised in a society which is more pornified and sexualized than when Reviving Ophelia was first published.
I didn’t find those answers either. Not because Pipher doesn’t offer a good explanation of what happens when puberty hits and many of the ways parenting and society can stack the deck against young women without meaning to.
I have to take it on intellectual faith that the maelstrom that is puberty and adolescence really is as described. There was so much other dysfunction going on in my family that I truly cannot relate on an emotional level and do not have physical memories of what it was like to be a teenaged girl.
Hormones rampaging? Didn’t notice. Black and white thinking? Don’t remember. It’s hard for me because my memories involve a father who came into my bedroom at night and a mother who undermined my development at every turn.
Watching my six nieces grow has been quite the education for me. I can see the things Pipher describes happening in them and I have learned it’s okay because it’s normal. I’ve watched them go through these stages and come out the other end to be strong women who can face society on their own terms. In no small part due to the parenting they received, from family prepared to teach them the pitfalls of living in a pornified society filled with highly sexualized standards for girls and women.
Reviving Ophelia is well-written and easy to read. Dr. Pipher’s case studies are still relevant, as are her explanations about what goes on when a girl hits puberty. That I didn’t get what I wanted from it is not Dr. Pipher’s fault, I was looking for a book she didn’t write.