A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines (Banned Book Review)

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took a while to get to the top of the waiting list for this book, that I picked to read for Banned Books week back in October–good Lord, that’s been barely a month. It feels like forever, this Saturday after Shitstorm 2016 is finally over.

And once again, I am left stunned. For one thing, there’s the usual theme of this country’s ugly history of racial inequality being pretty much the only reason to challenge this particular book. And I know I sound snarky. Frankly, I like being snarky sometimes. After this week, when Donald Trump of all people has been elected President and hate seems to be the order of the day, after Leonard Cohen has left us, when my Niners still suck, I’m in a fine fettle of snarkiness. Racism, and the concept of banning books simply because they expose that racism, both beg to be snarked at.

Anyway. Snark over. What a book! This is the story of Grant Wiggins, a black teacher in 1940’s rural Louisiana, and his mission to help another black man, wrongfully condemned to die for a crime he did not commit, to walk like a man (in the words of Frankie Valli) to the electric chair. This is not To Kill a Mockingbird but something even more subtle: The mission is not to win justice, but rather to accept the injustice with as much grace as can be found. The writing’s power is in its simplicity and its clarity, the conversational telling of a story that seems like just another tragic story of bigotry and hatred, and it’s not until you close the back cover that you realize you’ve been thoroughly whopped over the head.

Highly recommended.

Bookshelves: banned-and-challenged, current-social-issues, literary-fiction, racism, southern-writers

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Compassion for Bigots – Yes, Even Them

“So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?”

Used with permission of Pro Football Schedules under Creative Commons license. http://profootballschedules.com/falcons-vs-49ers-photos

Discussing hot-potato political issues with people we know can be iffy enough, especially with the unprecedented ugliness of the 2016 Presidential election, but with a stranger at the bus stop – well, you never know what might get you gunned down.

But my bus was running late and I was bored. What the hell, I thought. I’ll engage.

“I think he’s exercising his constitutional right to free speech to protest a problem that has needed attention for far too long,” I replied with a smile. I did not add that I am a Kap fan, being one of the #FortyNinerFaithful, which I don’t often mention in casual conversation seeing as how I live deep in Seahawks territory and all. Turned out that didn’t matter.

“But what about the flag?” he asked.

“What about it?” I replied cautiously.

“What about respect for the military, people who have fought and died for that flag?”

“I think the flag represents what we are – or what we aspire to be – as a nation. I don’t believe Kaepernick intended to disrespect the flag specifically, or the military. I think he was protesting a national standard of racism that is not in step with our constitution or the principles upon which this nation was founded.”

(By the way, I really do speak with correct grammar and impeccable eloquence in casual conversation. Okay, not really. I’m paraphrasing because writing should look good, and what I’m writing is the essence of what was said by both parties.)

“But what about veterans?” he pressed.

Ah, yes. “I read a blog post recently by Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station, a man who was career Navy, I believe, where he answered a question about what he thought about the subject as a veteran. [And you can read his entire, most excellent, post here.] He wrote about Kap’s constitutional right to protest what he sees as a societal injustice, and that he himself served for that right, along with anyone’s right to disagree.” Yep, I’m a diplomat.

“Well, I didn’t fight for anybody’s right to piss on the flag. I fought for that flag. “

OK. Fair enough. Your reasons for serving are your own, sir.

“And I bet that guy wasn’t a combat vet. Anybody who fought on the ground fought for the flag.”

I feared that was an overgeneralization, but what do I know? I let that pass.

“I’m from Cincinnati, ” he continued. “And I’m damned if I can find anybody who agrees with me about this. “

“Well, yes, ” I agreed. “Seattle is a pretty live-and-let-live place. “

He snorted.

“But Kaepernick has to feel like an idiot now. All that shit he stirred up for himself. “

I shrugged. “He’s a big boy, he can take it.  He was probably counting on it. He’s a public figure, able to bring a lot of attention to a big problem through a visible and controversial action.”

“And now I hear the whole Seahawks team plans to protest the flag this Sunday. “

I shrugged again. I’m now pretty sure this guy isn’t incredibly perceptive to nuance,  or shades of gray, or semantics.

“These football players don’t have any right to protest anyway. The NFL is very good to its blacks.”

I boggled a little. Its blacks. Like black athletes are the NFL’s pets or something.

“They need to protest Obama. He’s the one’s got all the blacks stirred up, police videos and whatnot.”

Okay, I’ve got a bona fide bigot here, proselytizing at me. I bet he’s voting for Trump, which is absolutely his right, but where the hell is my bus?

“Abuse of police power and unfair targeting of blacks has been going on forever,” I said. “What’s new are the cameras in everyone’s hands and the Internet to get the evidence out there. “

“But when some thug has robbed a store and is running –“

Yes, he said “thug,” which is pretty much the new n-word. And that’s when I started to get pissed. To which discussion of political and touchy social subjects will almost always lead. And I interrupted him. Fair’s fair. He started this whole thing by interrupting my solitary, minding-my-own-business-esque phone scrolling.

“Had he been convicted of that theft? Even if he was, is that an offense punishable by death? Is resisting arrest a capital offense? Did that officer have the authority to try him, convict him, sentence him, and execute him, right then and there? That’s another thing our constitution is supposed to guarantee – due process under the law.”

Aarrgh. No, I do not believe all cops are bigots. I worked hand-in-glove with many cops for many years, as a 911 dispatcher and as a criminal defense paralegal. I’ve seen first-hand how heroic and humanitarian many cops are, and I’ve also seen first-hand just how many are power-drunk national incidents waiting to happen. It’s alarming. And as usual, the bad ones taint the reputations of the good ones, but that doesn’t mean the bad ones shouldn’t be weeded out and disciplined appropriately.

The bus pulled up. Finally.

“Well, of course it’s a tragedy, but –“

Oh, shut up with the but. That sentence should not have a but. It’s a tragedy, and that’s only the start of what it is.

I greeted the driver, tapped my pass against the fare meter, and looked around. The bus was nearly empty. But my new friend was right behind me, still yakking. Instead of taking an empty seat I sat right next to someone else, so the guy couldn’t sit next to me. Enough is enough.

Sure enough, instead of sitting in an empty row, Mr. Flag sat next to someone else as well.

” So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?” I heard him ask the woman next to him. Oh God, poor lady.

But poor him, too. As he tried yet again to find someone who agrees that Kap is a subversive antipatriot who should be drummed out of the NFL, if not the country, I could hear desperation in his tone.

And I remembered when I first arrived in Seattle, what a fish out of water I was. Not for its liberalness, no – that was heaven for me, being a hippie peace freak at heart and coming here from a virtually 100% conservative, Christian, Caucasian community where President Obama didn’t even bother to campaign and I was regularly offended by openly voiced bigotry. This guy was a product of Cincinnati. I Googled “Cincinnati racism,” and the top three results were articles touting Cincinnati as the most racist city in America. Shudder.

No wonder he sounded so lost. It wasn’t just a change of scenery, of learning new streets and local ordinances. His entire worldview was being challenged on a daily basis. Seattle does not have ghettos as ghettos are generally defined, but even the poorest neighborhoods are pretty racially integrated, which is atypical. Everywhere you go around here, you see black skin and Asian skin and Indian skin, hijabs and yarmulkes and saris and skinny jeans and yoga pants and Northface gear, often in surprising combinations. Seattle rings with the music of a dozen languages. I love it.

I remember when I’d just arrived in Seattle, like the Country Mouse come to the Big City, just set my suitcase on the sidewalk and looking around in dazed confusion. It wasn’t the politics or social attitudes  (“As long as you’re a Democrat we’ll like you just fine” one of my new co-workers had told me). It was learning city ways in general, on top of figuring out what street I lived on, public transportation, recycling (Seattleites will give you the hairy eyeball if you drop a recyclable or a compostable into the landfill bin), and umbrella etiquette – what are you supposed to do with the sopping wet thing anyway, just let it drip all over people’s carpets?  (I found a lovely lambskin handbag, with a separate lined umbrella pocket, in a second-hand shop for eight bucks – score! )

This man had it so much worse. What was probably a lifetime of brainwashing – because hatred and exclusion are not inherent – was being challenged on a daily basis. Racial tolerance, support for the homeless population, marriage equality before SCOTUS said so, legal marijuana – Washington is the new California when it comes to making legal moves to accept and grant equality to all people, with all their wild and crazy shit, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. For someone with rather, can I say backward, views on this stuff, it has to be pretty damned lonely. I believe in challenging archaic attitudes, which is why I continued the conversation with Mr Flag as long as I did, but even as I cut him off, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. It can’t be easy to suddenly find yourself surrounded by people who think your life-long worldview is ugly.

To look at it from his point of view – which is what compassion requires – is to see that people he has been taught are inferior and frightening and sub-human are straining to take away something he believes he’s had his whole life – his superiority. People of color have had enough, and rightfully so, but even worse,  some white people are not only accepting and even encouraging that frightening rise of the unimaginable, they are condemning this man with looks and words when he tries to keep things as he is used to them, as he has been taught to believe they are supposed to be. And the learning is real.

I’ve never been an outright bigot, but I’ve been as guilty of unintentional racism as anyone else. I’ve subconsciously bought into the propaganda, before I learned critical thinking, to question authority and the status quo. I like to think the majority of white people are good people, who believe in equality as a desirable principle and who, when they think about it consciously, believe people are people, no matter their skin color. But that is what is so insidious about racism in this country – it is underneath, built into all the policies we deal with and the ways people of color are portrayed by the media, the way they are treated by law enforcement, by financial institutions, by education, by health care, by employment practices, by the “it’s-just-a-joke” jokes. Sometimes it’s not so subtle, as with the Red Cross poster that showed all the rule-breaking children as non-white, or the police department that uses targets with black people as the bad guys for their officers to target shoot. We absorb that stuff subliminally, and it doesn’t matter whether we have “good friends” who are black or Hispanic or Indian or Asian. When that has to compete against what the news and entertainment media and political rhetoric saturate us with, it’s not enough. The racism is still there, and it runs deep in the body of this nation, on a molecular level. Literally. Our brains have become hard-wired to it.

I remembered the day I figured out that “I don’t see color” is actually pretty dismissive and unintentionally bigoted (and don’t get me started on “White Pride” or #AllLivesMatter), and cringed at how many times I’d spouted that to my non-white friends and acquaintances – and how they generously tolerated my ignorance. Or maybe they tried to gently educate me, and I was too oblivious to get it. It’s entirely possible. And I’m sure I still do it without even knowing it. Every time I catch myself, I cringe all over again.

Metamorphosis sucks.

I think any action, short of violence, that draws attention is a valid one. Sometimes it comes down to ramming it down people’s throats. Perhaps Krystal Lake made an error in judgment by wearing her “America Was Never Great” hat to work, but when it comes to institutionalized racism and misogyny, that statement is absolutely true. This is how things change, by stirring them up. It’s not easy to train people to think differently from how they’ve been taught to think their whole lives. Along with stirring the pot, we have to educate, to foster awareness, to promote compassion from a place others can understand. We do this one person at a time, with the millions in mind. We openly challenge a status quo that still, decades after it was outlawed, holds racist beliefs nestled close within its very infrastructure, and by creating such a furor that maybe, just maybe, one or two or even a few hundred might start to get it. It’s not easy. It takes guts.

Meanwhile, Mr. Flag was now loudly castigating the entire Seahawks football team. The woman next to him heaved an exasperated sigh, put in earbuds, and stuck her face in a book. After another few minutes of futilely seeking agreement (kinda fruitless in a city that bleeds blue and green, no matter the political issue involved) and countless dirty looks, Mr. Flag finally subsided into sullen silence.

Compassion. We teach best not with fists or angry harangues, but by making calm, reasoned statements and setting a visible example.  We work to change our laws and enforce the ones we already have. We change our use of language, our media depictions and our popular representations. We hold on to our patience. We remember that change is damned hard and we keep working at it. We stand up and march, or we lie down and close a highway. We shut out a loudmouth on the bus.

Or we take a knee.

Pabak Sarkar, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license.

Holocaust by Gerald Green (Book Review)

HolocaustHolocaust by Gerald Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Given the present rise of Islamophobia and the Trump Virus, it cannot be stressed enough that “we must never forget.”

I first read this book decades ago, when I was in high school, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve wanted to reread it but couldn’t find it in any library, and finally tracked down a used copy online.

It’s almost as stellar as I remember. I see now that it is somewhat contrived, to provide for the continual convergence of these two families, the Jewish Weisses and the party-line Dorfs, but it’s still quite readable and deeply moving. I was 16 when I first read it in 1978, before education about the Holocaust became common, and I was shocked to learn that it was based in fact and drew heavily from actual events, places, and people. A favorite teacher saw me reading it and introduced me to Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, and Elie Wiesel. (That teacher so rocked. I already knew how to spell and write sentences correctly, and I used to sleep through her required English class until she started assigning me books and essays apart from the other students. I read and reported gladly and will always remember her as the epitome of what a teacher should be. I was horrified when she was brutally murdered a year after I graduated. RIP, Mrs. McGill – you live on.)

I am only now aware that Green wrote this story as a teleplay first and adapted it for the novel, garnering the Dag Hammarskjöld International Peace Prize for literature. I see the miniseries is available to watch on YouTube and I’m headed there next.

Still outstanding.

Paris, Ryder Trucks, and Why You Really Are the Boss of Me #1000Speak

These past several months at work I was plagued by someone with no authority constantly telling me how to do my job. Once or twice a week, I’d get an email from this woman telling me that I hadn’t done such-and-such a thing. She is a private contractor, not an a fellow employee and certainly not my superior, with zero training in what my job duties are. Irritating as hell, oh yes. “Bite me” (or worse) I’d mutter every time I received one of those emails. Delete. Ignore.

This went on for months, and it grew. Her emails to me became more terse and condescending. Tired of it, I was figuring out ways to replace her with another contractor. Until I had a flash of inspiration, and checked something out. Turns out, she wasn’t being paid by my company in a timely manner. Payment for her services is not part of my job duties at all. But she thought the failure was connected to a function I routinely perform, assumed I must not be performing it correctly, and started trying to tell me what to do.

I did a little investigation, confirmed my diagnosis of the problem, and put her in touch with the office that handles private contractor reimbursement. Problems solved. She’s being paid as she should, and I don’t have someone trying to order me around.

Yes, she made incorrect assumptions, that her payment issues were my fault. But she’s not the only one. I incorrectly assumed that she was being an insufferable know-it-all. Both problems were compounded when neither of us communicated what our issues really were: “Gimme my money!” “You’re not the boss of me!” What it came down to was that each of was being threatened, and neither of us was responding appropriately, not solving and even escalating the situation. She could have lost a source of income, and I could have lost the services of a contractor who performs well.

Incorrect assumptions abound. Our only defenses are to think about what the problem really is, communicate what it is, discover the facts as we can, and do our best to find equitable solutions. When we don’t, we lose.

I am reminded of this in the wake of the ISIS attacks on Paris and the flood of pro- and anti-refugee and pro- and anti-Muslim sentiments everywhere.

No, I’m not going to talk (much) about the issues of refugees or Islam, per se. But oh my, the fur is flying, along with insults and xenophobic propaganda on a level with that perpetrated against the Jews by Nazi Germany. Social media have become cesspools. You’re a racist hate-mongerer. Yeah? Well, you’re a bleeding-heart terrorist-lover. It sucker-punched me, though, when I saw ugliness being posted by people I thought I knew, people I hold in high regard, people I love. People that I believed thought like I did. I was surprised at how much it upset me, as if what’s going on in the world wasn’t upsetting enough. I’ve unfollowed a few people, and a few have probably unfollowed me. They’re probably as disappointed in me as I am in them.

And what’s being solved? Nothing.

I took my upset to a group of bloggers I am privileged to know, souls more contemplative and level-headed than I. I listened to their words, and read their words. I stepped back from the shitstorm and allowed things to just percolate in my mind and my heart, and I was able to gain some perspective.

And I remembered the non-boss trying to boss me around. What had I learned?

When we operate in the face of threat, we don’t think clearly. Yes, people reacting from a position of xenophobia and hatred are operating from fear, but so am I. I am also afraid of more violence being perpetuated against my own country, whether from terrorists disguised as refugees, or from terrorists already hiding here, or from someone out there somewhere else who decides to fly another plane into another skyscraper, decides to detonate another explosive-laden Ryder truck by an office building. But I am also afraid of what will happen to us as a race if we don’t do the right thing and help our fellow humans when they need it. I am afraid of how horribly divided this country is becoming on issues that are central to our collective identity. That, I think, is the biggest victory the terror machine can have, when they drive a spike into the collective soul of America, turning us against each other and getting us to do their work for them.

I am reminded not to assume I know what others are thinking, just as they should not make such assumptions about me. I am reminded to avoid labels, especially when tags like “conservative” and “liberal” carry more invective than they ever have.  I am reminded that each of is coming from a different, secret place with dreams and nightmares no one else can truly know. I am reminded that actions do not always reflect motives. I am reminded that we all have feet of clay at times, myself included, perhaps even now. I am reminded that when I despise others for their thoughts as they despise me for mine, I am being as big a bigot as they are.

I am reminded most of all that the world is hurting, and all of this conflict, words and bombs, is symptomatic of massive change and healing that are essential if we are to survive and evolve, as individuals and as a species.

That won’t start until we start having real dialogue, using facts and reason instead of generalization and speculation and outright lies. When I allow you to be the boss, and you allow me to be the boss, we work together. When we work together, we stop yelling at each other and start listening. Listen to the fear, the worry, the pain, and treat them the only way they can be treated – with compassion, love, healing.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (Book Review)

While I still feel like I was peeking into someone’s windows, three days in to NaNoWriMo was the perfect time for me to read this book, a less-than-stellar bit from a talented writer. It reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect, because while talent is one thing, the creative process is a process, that takes time and reworking and patience and coming back to gently nudge and prod into shape without giving up. So for that, Harper Lee, I thank you.

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Now I wish I hadn’t read this book.

I respond to controversy by diving right into it. This is not a banned book, but my reaction was the same: I want to read it myself, to see for myself.

I’ve read of the kerfuffle over its publication. Despite the official finding that no elder abuse of Ms. Lee took place, I am still deeply bothered by tales of her isolation from visitors and her adamant statements that she would not publish another novel. It seems rather convenient that she changed her mind only a few months after the death of her very protective sister and transfer of control of her affairs to other hands. No, I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, but thought of her being taken advantage of angers me.

After reading it for myself I am of the mind that no, this is not a separate novel from To Kill a Mockingbird. The seeds are here, including the the glossed-over story of Tom Robinson, with different players and a different outcome. Jean Louise Finch as a grown woman has many flashbacks to her childhood in Maycomb, and it’s easy to see why the child Scout was given the voice to tell the story, because those were the richest parts, the ones that read like the Harper Lee I love from TKAM.

There is gold here certainly:

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

Yes, authors produce books that are not of the quality of their magnum opus, but that’s not what Go Set a Watchman feels like to me. It does not feel like a sequel, and it does not feel like a companion. The writing is not as luminous, the plot is loose, the intricacies and subtleties of love and prejudice and family and home and hate are not painted with the fine strokes we know from TKAM. This is not a criticism of Harper Lee; with GSAW we are merely reading an earlier part of her creative process. It doesn’t take anything away from the literary masterpiece it was worked into, that I will always love. But GSAW feels like a beginning, like something that was not published before because it was not meant to be.

Now I almost feel like I read someone else’s diary. I am very sorry, Harper Lee.

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The First Annual (or Whatever) 99 Monkeys Stupidest Random Awards

The Stupidest Song You Can’t Not Sing Along With: Daydream Believer. That song is as impossible to break away from as the Borg. And I’m not bagging on the Monkees. I love the Monkees. I had as big a crush on Davy Jones as any other girl.

The Stupidest Best Philosophy I Just Might Adopt Immediately: WWKRD? What Would Keith Richards Do? Say what you want about the man, he’s a survivor. “Keep calm, get blazed, and play the riff ” has a simple purity to it.

Of course I am not the first to have thought of this. It’s a real book, and I want it.

I am aware that Keith Richards and Davy Jones are sort of the antithesis of each other, and I’m okay with that.

Elegantly wasted, indeed.

The Stupidest Dictionary: The one in my phone. It absolutely will not learn the word “damn,” but regularly tries to autofill “fisting” for any number of normal, everyday words. Are you fucking kidding me, Samsung? Learn “fuck,” too.
The Stupidest Super Power: My inability to sleep adequately for years on end. I can sleep only 10 minutes a night for a week at a time, and somehow my body thinks a 10-hour collapse once a week is sufficient for me to catch up and somehow avoid a psychotic break from sleep deprivation.

Unless, of course, this is due to a psychic awakening because I am, in fact, one of the Star People from the Pleiades. If that’s true, then I’d just like to go home now, please. A pair of ruby slippers would make short work of the 445 light-year trip.

The Stupidest Ostrich Argument: All these inane social media posts about wonderful white cops and wonderful black detainees and just all-around warm and fuzzy racial wonderfulness. It’s like posting about all the people who don’t have cancer to “remind us the world isn’t completely bad,” which really means “allow us to pretend the bad thing isn’t there.” No matter how many people don’t have cancer, cancer is still an ugly plague. So is racism. Stop trying to pretty it up or shrug away from it.

Of course. Racism solved.

The Stupidest “News”: That two little kids held hands. I don’t know what’s stupider, that someone actually got paid for writing this crap, or that people continue to eat up anything about the Kardashians. But that’s our society these days: the most money and the biggest boobs.

The Stupidest Place to Get Your News: Facebook. Remember, what you read is only as accurate as the most ignorant user.

This prank meme, Steven Spielberg posing with
a fake dinosaur from the Jurassic Park set,
was taken seriously by a disturbingly large number of people.

The Stupidest Alert System: Whoever invented obnoxious car alarms should be shot. OK, maybe not shot, but perhaps forced to be awakened by this rude noise every 15 minutes for the rest of his life. Nobody goes running out to catch the car burglar when these things go off, and go off, and go off, and go off, ad insaniam. What they do is start looking for the baseball bat they will use to shut the damned thing up, when it turns out the car’s owner is away on a three-week tour of Russia and the Balkan lands.

The runner-up is whoever thought up using a car horn as an alert to tell you that you’ve locked or unlocked your vehicle. Do it the old-fashioned way, by, um, remembering where you parked it. And if you can’t remember, then you’re missing out on the fun of trying to find your beat-up ride in the sea of a coliseum parking lot, with your ears still ringing from the concert and your head swimming from the ganja. Where’s your sense of adventure?

Overall, I think car horns are far too subject to rude usage, and should therefore be un-invented.
That’s it for this installment. Here’s the earworm. You’re welcome.