january 2015 books.

Genesis: Memory of Fire, Volume 1
Eduardo Galeano
A brief note to say that Galeano is Uruguayan! I'm not sure that I've ever read anything by a Uruguayan author before. I should get a map and put pins in it.

So, I'm not sure what you would call this book. It's non-fiction, with short chapters detailing events that happened during the discovery and colonization of the New World, with particular focus on Latin and South America. There are footnotes for each chapter that lead to the original sources. Galeano retells these events in his own voice. There are threads running through, like there might be several chapters about the life of an individual, but those chapters are intermixed with other chapters that occurred at the same time. So the narrative is about the whole period, rather than any particular set of characters.

The first section is full of creation myths from various peoples across North and South America. These varied from creation of the Sun to some just-so stories about how animals got certain characteristics. My favorite of these was when a meeting of the animals was interrupted by the sunrise, and the bear, leaving in a hurry, put his moccasins on the wrong feet, and that's why the bear walks that way. There were even a couple about how the men came to be in charge. One story said the women used to be in charge, but then the men killed all the women and then raised the now-motherless children to believe that men were supposed to be in charge. That is not as hilarious.

And then the Europeans came. The stories then were full of blood and betrayal and gold.

I did learn about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Poor Sor Juana. She was apparently brilliant, but learning was forbidden for females at the time, so she was self-taught. She ended up joining a convent as an alternative to marriage (pretty much the only choice for her). She joined a sect that was more lenient about women studying, but she was still censured by the church for "waywardness." Much of her written work ended up being destroyed by church officials. Just think what she might have done had she been allowed, even encouraged to use her mind.

Also, I learned that the Spanish king in charge of much of the westward expansion, Charles II, was disabled physically, intellectually, and emotionally, from all the inbreeding. Because he was completely incompetant, the fate of Spain, new and old, was left to his advisors, court, and foreign influence. I know, it's kinda dumb to rail against the monarchy now, but dang, that was screwed up.

This book is the first of a trilogy, and thus covered only up to 1800. I enjoyed it, but found all the names and places a bit confusing. I think that's okay, as the point was more to weave an overall picture, rather than teach names and dates. It was frequently infuriating. I might pick up the other two books if I found them, as I think more recent history would appeal to me more.

Günter Grass
I came to a realization while reading this book, and I'm going to cop to it, though it makes me look kinda stupid. I knew that the Nazis were also called the Nationalist Socialist party, and I got that they were all about Germany and Germanic people (the "nationalist" part). But I guess I never really thought about the socialist part. It kinda gets lost in the shuffle, what with the genocide and all.

The story centers around the sinking of a ship, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, which was originally commissioned as part of the Strength Through Joy program. This was a government leisure program, meant to boost tourism and make nice things like cruise trips available to everyone, regardless of social status. The characters in the book take a cruise on the Wihlem Gustloff, and they keep remarking about the concept of a classless ship. So everyone gets to eat the same food and see the same sights and attend the same shows. A classless ship! It sounds nice, doesn't it? Socialism always sounds so nice.

Then the war came, and the Wilhelm Gustloff was turned into a navy vessel, then a hospital ship and floating barracks. Finally, it was used to evacuate troops and civilians to escape the advancing Red Army. During one of those transports, it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. Over 9,000 people died, which is the largest death toll from the sinking of a single ship (in comparison, about 1500 people died when the Titanic sank).

The action of the novel itself takes place 50 years after the sinking of the ship and the end of the war. The narrator is a German who was born right as the ship was sinking - his mother had been rescued and gave birth on one of the rescue ships. She has been very insistent all his life that he needs to write about the ship, as the news of it was suppressed by both the Germans and the Soviets. Since he has not done so, she turns to his estranged son, who starts up a website about it. The topic, because the ship was named after a Nazi martyr and because it was suppressed tragedy, attracts a Neo-Nazi following which is keen to point out how the Germans suffered (question: are Neo-Nazis socialist, or is it really about the anti-semitism with those guys?).

My understanding is that Grass thinks that the Germans have not properly dealt with their Nazi past. How can you say that, Günter? Everybody knows that the Germans have bent over backwards to show that they are ashamed and sorry over what went down. His point seems to be that everyone has forgotten the socialist aspect of it - that the masses were suffering, which is when Socialism sounds the nicest of all. By being silent about how the Nazis came to power, how nice Socialism sounded at the time, the only voices on the topic are the extremists.

I don't feel so bad about not realizing the Nazis were socialists now.

Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy
Supposedly, this is the greatest novel ever written. It was okay?

The characters were certainly well-written. As people, they were familiar, and their actions in the story all seemed inevitable, like that is just what they would do. By the end, that was frustrating. While I can see why Anna completely lost it, it is never pleasant to see anyone acting out that way.

I was never particularly compelled by Anna, actually. Half the book is about another person in her extended social circle, Constantin Levin. I much preferred him and his story arc. There are beautiful scenes with his dying brother and the birth of his son, and he even has a happy ending. I'm not really sure how to fit the stories of the two main characters together. They are related because they deal with a lot of the same people, but I'm not sure why it wouldn't work as well as two books. And then I could skip the book about the sad lady who has an affair and goes nuts and just read about the hard-working farmer guy who finds love and faith.

There is a lot of historical context in the book, and so there was a great deal of discussion about land policy, the peasant class, and education reform. I find that I have a hard time with books where smart people sit around and have a discussion about a topic, particularly when I don't know anything about that topic. I suppose if I were a real scholar, I could have easily educated myself on the topic of the role of the peasant in Russian society. I did not do that. Instead I just got frustrated during those parts. Apparently, these sections were Tolstoy's way of holding forth on topics of his day. While it does serve to paint a very broad picture of Russia at that time, I found it distracting and taxing.

So yeah. I guess I don't get it. I hate when that happens.

Burger's Daughter
Nadine Gordimer
This novel centers around Rosa Burger, a young South African woman whose parents were white people in the Communist anti-apartheid movement. She is now orphaned and is unsure of what to do with her life. Since childhood, she was raised to see injustice and to fight it. She was even sent to sneak messages and papers into jail or to other revolutionaries.

But now she is on her own. She doesn't seem to think that the cause will do any good. Her parents' old comrades try to get her to continue in the work. She mostly wants to leave the country. She is listless and uninvolved with her life and can't seem to build any sort of intimacy with anyone.

It's interesting to think about, particularly with a brand new human forming in my tummy. Our kid will be brought up to view the world a certain way, because we view the world a certain way. And they may eventually accept, modify, or rebel completely against that view. Obviously, we think our perspective is right, and we want our child to go ahead and have this perspective, without having to go through all the hard work of eliminating the perspectives we eliminated to get here. But that doesn't always work. Actually, does it ever work?

In the end, Rosa is arrested and sent to jail without having done anything. Maybe the lesson is that you can't escape your parents. So there, kid.

The Algiers Motel Incident
John Hersey

Back in the summer of 1967, there were some riots in Detroit, started by the raid of an illegal bar (called a blind pig). On the fourth day of the riot, someone called in a report of a sniper at the Algiers Motel (no sniper was ever found, it seems the report was based on someone hearing gunfire and then seeing someone else hit the dirt for cover). Police and National Guardsmen stormed the motel, leaving three young black men dead and several other people badly beaten, including two women who were stripped nearly naked.

Hersey goes to Detroit and interviews anybody he can find that had anything to do with the case. In writing up reports about the incident, two of the cops stated that they shot and killed two of the young men. However, these reports were thrown out of court as inadmissable, as the cops had not been informed that anything they stated might be used against them. Witness testimony was often confused and conflicting, due to the events being confused and often terrifying, and in the end, no one went to jail.

There is a particularly interesting passage where one of the cops talks about working vice, mostly busting prostitutes. He wonders whether his job is interfering with his ability to have a close relationship with a woman. This is wonderfully self-aware of the guy, though it's not entirely clear if he thinks of his wariness of women as justified or not. Hersey asks whether he thinks it's influencing him to see women as more prone to evil, and he responds, "Who offered who the apple?" So working in a poverty-stricken, high-crime, black community might also give one the idea that black people are all criminals. That's a completely understandable and very human reaction. But the opinion is not based on a representative sample of either black people or criminals. It is understandable, but not justified.

On the other hand, many members of the black community do not have much respect for law enforcement. They are often treated like criminals, whether or not they've done anything. They don't feel the law respects them, so why should they respect it? During the trial, at least one of the witnesses was just plain uncooperative, as if he didn't think it mattered one way or the other what he said, as the outcome was pre-determined. It is hard to read his testimony and not want to yell at him, but you also wonder whether it would've made any difference had he played it straight.

It was certainly a very timely book to read, what with recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island. I'd like to think that the situation has improved, but I can't help but think that under similar riot conditions today, kids would still die and be beaten and no one would ever be punished for it.

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