october 2014 books.

Aside from not posting the book write-ups, I've done a bad job lately of writing them as I go. I do a lot better if I write about a book pretty soon after I've read it, rather than after I've read three other books besides. That did not happen much this month.

William Kennedy
Is it just me, or are a lot of the Great Books really depressing? I'm happy to take others word for it that a book is great, and this particular one had a Pulitzer committee touting it. And there are many incredibly sad books that I have loved. This one just bummed me out.

Set during the Depression, this is the story of a vagrant named Francis returning to his home town. He left to become a drifter years and years ago after dropping and killing his baby. While he is going about, finding odd jobs, drinking his little pay, hanging out with other miserable souls, and finding somewhere warmish to sleep, he relives events from his past that are brought back by seeing his old stomping grounds.

There is some hope and redemption at the end when he visits his wife and children. They show him amazing kindness, considering he was an alcoholic father at best and an absent one for the most part. There seems to be a chance for reconciliation, but the author leaves it open-ended as to whether Francis will be able to accept their forgiveness.

The Known World
Edward P. Jones
Alright, vagrancy isn't your bag, how about some slavery?

The book focuses mainly on one farm, owned by a black man and his wife. The man himself is a former slave whose father bought his freedom as a child. Now that he is an adult, he has his own farm and his own slaves. The story weaves in and out of time and place, concerning people who move in and out of the main story. The structure of it was really well-done, showing how things connect without being confusing. The characters were well-written, in that each acted as you would expect them to based on their previous actions and development.

The story itself is full of nuance, told in a straight-forward manner without casting judgment.

I've been very influenced by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for the Atlantic who writes a lot about race in America and slavery's legacy. He told a story once about kids learning about slavery, and the kids being flabbergasted that anyone would put up with that level of cruelty. The kids were confident that they would revolt or just refuse to work. And some people did that, but mostly people did what they were expected, and probably you and I would do the same. We like to think of ourselves as special and outside of history, but if millions of people acted that way before, we would probably be one of them. Coates' goal is to understand the slave-owner, knowing that he, too, would be the same. That's a much harder pill to swallow. This book seemed to be exploring that as well, with characters in all kinds of slightly varied roles in the slave society - slave and slave-owner, but also former slave, black servant, local law, foreman.

Certain Women
Madeleine L'Engle
I'd never read any of L'Engle's adult fiction. In fact, I read A Wrinkle in Time only once, long ago, and didn't really get it, despite the fact that allegorical fantasy novels are totally my thing. I think I will give it another try.

But not based on this. It was fine. It takes us through the last few days of a dying Broadway actor. His wife and daughter are tending to him as they reminisce about the old theatre days. We spend the most time with the daughter, who takes us back through the actor's nine (!) marriages. The actor has always wanted to play King David, who also had a whole slew of wives. The tales of the marriages and the children that came of them are woven and related to the stories of King David. While some of the wives are distant, for the most part, they all form a giant extended family, centered around this one patriarch. My experience with families built on multiple marriages has been very complicated and frequently tense. Some of that is shown here, but mostly it is just messy in the way that real life and real families are, but still full of love.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Speaking of Ta-Nahisi Coates, I read this as part of his book club. We read a couple chapters a week, and then had an online discussion about what we read. I did the reading and followed the discussion, but did not participate.

The idea of this book is that our current legal system has created an undercaste that happens to be mostly minorities. I can't say whether this is intentional, whether those who designed the system were really wanting to do this to keep black people down. But I can't argue with the results. I don't think it matters whether it's intentional.

The thing is, I think most people are racist to some extent. Our society is pretty segregated, and we all hold some bias, which affects our behavior. So if I'm in my car at night at a stoplight, and I see some people on the sidewalk, I'm more likely to feel scared and lock my doors if they are black. So take my small, individual racism and multiply it by every person involved in the criminal justice system, from the scared lady in her car to the officer called to the scene to the attorneys and judges. That guy, by being black, just looks more like a criminal and is treated accordingly on every single level (Alexander goes into great detail about the difference of how people are treated at every step in the process).

Now, he may very well be breaking the law, because he's got some weed in his pocket. But so may a white dude. The rate of drug use across the races is pretty even. About the same percentage of white people do drugs as do blacks and hispanics. But the rate at which people are arrested for possession is wildly skewed. Black and brown people are more likely to be stopped and searched for looking suspicious, and then they can be arrested because it turns out they have a joint. So they look criminal because we have defined more of them as criminals. It never occurred to me before that the status of criminal is defined solely by the law.

Once a person is a felon, that's where the idea of the undercaste comes in. I know a guy who was selling weed to his friends, and he got busted. He had a support system that was able to get him representation (not true of many, many people), so he did not go to prison, but he was a felon. It's really hard to find a job and housing when you are a felon. It's right there on the applications, a little box that you have to check that says sometime in the past, you were found guilty of a felony. And a lot of places will just throw out your application right then. When you can't find a job or a place to live, crime becomes a lot more likely. In many places, you cannot vote or serve on a jury. You're not even a citizen anymore.

Now, I can relate to people not wanting felons in their apartment buildings or at their jobs. There is a lot of room for debate about the status of being a felon (although it seems like letting them vote is a no-brainer). But the Drug War turns a lot of people into felons, people who haven't hurt anyone (except arguably themselves). And it does so very, very unevenly.

What I found most frustrating is that there have been court cases that show that something is rotten here by using the data to compare how blacks fare in the system versus whites. But the cases get thrown out, because rarely is someone ever caught saying something openly racist. Our racism is no longer overt. Everyone knows it's wrong to be racist, and so they assume no one is. These court decisions were infuriating. They basically acknowledged there was a problem, then said that if they did anything about this one case, it would mean the whole system was broken.

But...but...IT IS.

A coworker and I were talking about that guy in Nevada who held the feds off their own land and then made some comments about how black people were better off as slaves. My coworker said he didn't think the guy was actually a racist, because he probably didn't hate black people. Guess what: You don't have to hate anyone to be a racist. You just have to think they, as a group, are all the same as each other and are all different from you.

I barely scratched the surface here. There's a lot more about the dilution of our fourth amendment rights (prohiting unwarranted search and seizure), the militarization of the police, poverty and segregation, and what can be done.

The Natural
Bernard Malamud
This is my second Malamud book, the first being The Fixer, which was one of those incredibly depressing Great Books, one that I loved. Since reading that, I've been on the lookout for Malamud. That one was about anti-semitism in Russia. This one is about baseball. It is still sad.

A young baseballer named Roy Hobbs is on his way to Chicago to try out for the Cubbies. His career is stopped before it begins by a crazed woman with a gun. Fifteen years later, he finally gets on a losing team. Seeing as he is still a natural at the game (get it?), he soon turns the team around and they have a shot at the pennant. Hobbs becomes a local hero, fame gets to him, there's a dame or two and some baseball politics, and it all comes down to a final game.

I knew there was a Robert Redford movie based on this book, but I haven't seen it. However, I just read in the wikipedia article that the ending is basically the opposite of how the book goes. Not to spoil a sixty-year-old book and a thirty-year-old movie, but the movie has a happy ending where no one fails anyone or dies in obscurity. I try to be a sophisticated reader, but I honestly would've liked a happy ending. Not that I expected it, having read Malamud before, but I would've liked it. No one likes baseball to be sad.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
Kathleen Norris
I think that my sister-in-law gave me this book a decade or so ago. According to the bookmark, I got two-thirds of the way through. I remember enjoying it at the time, so I'm not sure why I abandoned it.

The author, having grown up in the church, wandered away as an adult and then come back, wants to reclaim many of the scary or loaded words of faith. Each chapter is a rumination on a specific word or concept in Christianity, dismantling it and re-examining it from new angles. I sympathize with her intentions here - so much language in the church has been corrupted by overuse or abuse.

Norris is a poet, and her understanding of faith shows this. I have come to the conclusion in the past couple of years that a poetic lens is about the only one I can use for faith to make any sense at all. The tricky thing is that I am not a poet. While I can read her interpretation and understand that it makes sense in a wibbly-wobbly fuzzy-wuzzy kind of way, and I can even appreciate and see the beauty and truth in that, sometimes I really get hung up on the fact that words do mean actual things. And yet, that wibbly-wobbly, fuzzy-wuzzy kind of way is the only path to faith that I have found I can walk.

For example, she does a chapter on the creeds. We say the Nicene Creed every week as part of our service, and I do it, but I feel conflicted about it. The creed seems so confident about things that I am not sure about at all. She would say that I shouldn't be so literal about it, that anything that contains the lines "Light from light, true God from true God" is obviously using a lot of hand-waving in the first place. Her chapter on the Virgin Mary talks about alternate definitions of virgin that have nothing to do with sex. You could certainly do that with every single word in the creed or even in scripture - stretch it out with mystery until it's so vague and clouded that it could mean anything. While I believe very firmly that words are fickle, tricky things, part of me really clings fast to saying no, words mean things.

See, this is why I like numbers. It's also why I struggle with poetry. It means different things to different people, and it may not mean anything at all. That is maddening. And yet I married a poet and may be possibly carrying a tiny new poet, so clearly something in me is attracted to that. I just don't get it.

Anyway, she's very reassuring that she struggled with a lot of things in her faith, it's a lifelong journey, blah blah blah. She says that she in all her struggles, the only thing that was really clear was that she was drawn to church, and that is enough. Hallelujah.

I appreciate that if I come back to this book at different times in my life, I will probably be struck by different chapters. It makes me wonder what struck me all those years ago.

In the Lake of the Woods
Tim O'Brien
O'Brien is another of those writers that I will always read. He writes a lot about the Vietnam War. This book started out talking about a politician who has just lost an important race and likely ended his career. He and his wife take to the woods to get away from the media and reassess their lives. And then the wife disappears.

The book goes back and forth between the present, where everyone is searching for the wife, and the past, dealing with the politician's alcoholic father, his childhood interest in magic, his time in Vietnam (there it is), and his adult life, including his political career and marriage. There are periodic chapters labeled "Hypothesis," which offers varying possible explanations on what happened to the wife. Maybe she wandered off and got lost, maybe the husband killed her, maybe she left him. Guess what, the answer is never revealed.

The time in Vietnam ends up being what brought the guy's political career down. He was involved in the My Lai massacre, which is pretty rough reading even in terms of Vietnam literature. He was there by accident, and he didn't actively participate in it, but afterwards, when he was assigned a clerk, he shuffled some paperwork so it looked like he was never there. And that's really what got him in trouble, though if his involvement had been known from the beginning, perhaps he never would have had a political career. I felt pretty sympathetic to the guy. Anyone could end up being there.

The Chosen
Chaim Potok
This was excellent. It's a story about a pair of Orthodox Jewish friends growing up in Brooklyn during and after World War II. One of the boys is Hasidic, while the other is just plain old Orthodox. He seems downright worldly compared to his friend. Their friendship is strained by what's going on in the world, mainly by the creation of Israel. It was news to me that some Jews were violently anti-Zionist. Their view was that only God could give them Israel, and for man to do it through politics was a betrayal. The other guys were thinking that God works through politics, too.

I learned a lot about Judaism and Hasidic Judaism in particular. What struck me was their devotion to studying the Talmud. Hours and hours of study followed by hours and hours of debate. The author finds the Hasidic rigidity frustrating, but he says that they have been crucial in keeping the faith alive through persecution and relocation.

You know, if I'd written this right after I finished the book, I'd have a lot more to say. Grr.

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