“What,” I was asked once, ” is white culture?” (Roediger’s comment seems to be apt: Is there a white culture without domination?)

Those who know me know that I am rarely at a loss for words. This time, though. . .

After a pause longer than the conference leader wanted, I said, “I don’t know. I hope it’s not the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag.”

Dyson has a better answer. Nothing. I mean, I know race is a social construct, but I admit I had never thought of it this way. There was a Rabbi’s sermon going around a while back that Jews should withdraw from being white and become Jewish again. That seemed too self-serving at the time. To renounce one’s membership in a group that had been so beneficial for so long just when that group was finally being scrutinized and criticized. So how do we abolish the white race without relieving it, us, of responsibility?

There is much to chew on in this book. For a while, I was kind of annoyed by Dyson’s tone. He kept saying that he was sure certain things were bothering we white readers. And largely, they didn’t. They were just eloquent though familiar arguments. Even a few I didn’t find convincing. His argument about the “n-word” (sorry if that’s wimpy; I’m just not going to write it or say it) seems too neat. A few things did emerge that ruffled me. This was the first extended moment:

When you stop believing that we are radical when we can be more conservative than you, that we are one color when we are a plethora of shades, and that we are related to each other and not you when you are related to us in more ways than you can count or may care to know.

The first point, if I understand it, confuses me, especially in the context of this book. It may a question of defining terms. What is “radical”? What is “conservative”? The “plethora of shades” piece is not one I recognize. At the very least, it seems reciprocal. And I think the lack of reciprocity in the third point, well, I get how whites need blacks and are related to (dependent?) on them, but that blacks are somehow independent (outside) of that relationship? I need more sentences here in order to be convinced.

And I am willing to listen. This is, after all, a sermon. Dyson wants to tell us, not to discuss with us. But I don’t think questioning or disagreeing is the same as not understanding. Certainly, there are any number of things I don’t have any kind of intellectual, historical or emotional access to (encounters with the police, for example), but Dyson, surprisingly defensive (and I think a bit off-target) about academia, is not preaching to the completely uninformed. With a few exceptions, he’s relying on ethos here. We are to trust him because he’s him. Well, that’s not always enough.

Dyson in Parma June 5th – free, but you have to register

The incomparable Dave Lucas introduced me to Linda Gregerson, and my general rule (and you should adopt it to) is if Dave recommends someone, you should follow through.  I generally don’t like ‘Greatest Hits’ collections, but this was the first one I found. And, as usual, Dave didn’t disappoint.

Gregerson’s language is pointed. It can seem gentle at first, but beware the razor beneath, particularly when it comes to writing about those who would do or have done harm to children.

I had to laugh when, in “Lately, I’ve taken to,” she seems to ask permission – “if // I may compare great things to / small” – because this is what she does so well.

I had a lot of favorites in here. “Indications That One’s Love Has Returned” probably tops the list.

If I could ask her one question, I’d ask her about her spacing. That’s one poet’s choice I rarely understand.

This is a collection of great and serious beauty and insight.

During the Holocaust, some Jews were enlisted? compelled? by the Nazis to serve as camp leaders or other kinds of functionaries. It was a masterful kind of psychological slavery, making these Jews or kapos, select the people who would get on those trains. I can understand why some people took the job as a feeble attempt to control what they could of a situation that was escalating at a pace and to a scale rapidly beyond their comprehension. At least, I think that was their intention. But we know about the road to Hell. . .

I’m not sure this comparison is apt, but it lingered in my mind as I read Forman’s book. As the title possessive pronoun indicates, this book focuses on how some blacks participated – actively, even eagerly – in constructing the intricate mechanism that we know now as mass incarceration. Forman makes two points about this. First, he argues that no one sees or is responsible for the whole big picture. Hence, no one was paying attention to its accumulated impact. I am less convinced about the second part of his argument – that since this system was built up piece by piece over time it will have to be dismantled piece by piece over time. There are so many interested in protecting / preserving / profiting from the status quo, that piece-by-piece would take too long. There is the “fierce urgency of now,” an urgency that includes my own students.

More convincing, though, is the evidence Forman presents about how some members of the black community who had the best of intentions (there’s that word again), became co-architects of what has become the destruction of their own communities. I was particulary interested in the elements of class and colorism that Forman introduced, topics I haven’t really considered in depth. To be fair, though, some of these people sought an “all-of-the-above” approach, but with the escalating intensity of the drug trade and its correlation with the influx of guns, the notion of a Marshall Plan for cities was abandoned, leaving only warrior policing behind.

As an English teacher, I appreciated Forman’s attention to language. The way we talk about these things matters. What if we called it “a war on guns” and “drug control”?

Forman at the City Club in Cleveland

Book Club discussion at the City Club May 22

I’m not sure where I got it or why I pulled it off the shelf. Perhaps, having just taken a short trip to New York, I was in the mood for something set there. In any event, after a while (and too much clumsy exposition in the form of, ‘look at me, I did research!’ on Carr’s part), I got into the story. I appreciated the way that form followed function. In other words, the lead investigator in this mystery has a new theory about how to work, and Carr mirrored that in the structure of his work. Aside from a few unlikely action sequences, this was a generally pleasant and easy read. And it was nice to read a story, any story (but especially a mystery) that did not use cell phones to move the plot along. People actually had to wait for things, and I liked how Carr made that waiting part of his characterizations and the overall plot.

This is my first Patchett book, and I’m not sure why I waited this long. She’s certainly come to my attention recently because I used to live in Nashville, and she opened a bookstore there. Plus, I heard a podcast that featured her, and I was enchanted both by her and the excerpts of the novel that she read to the audience.

It is not often that I wish that a book were longer, but this novel has an inspiring sense of an epic, and I wanted more – not only in between chapters (some of the transitions can be a bit abrupt) – but at the end. Let the generations continue.

The book, which opens with the christening party that changes everything (a section I heard her read out loud), is the story of things, both planned and unplanned, both small and large, that can shift the courses of our lives in ways that we don’t anticipate or even notice, until we’re so far off course that we can’t find our way back. It is about the sins not just of the father, but of the mother and the children as well. And Fix, the father in that opening scene, realizes this at his 83rd birthday: “There’s no protecting anyone. . . Keeping people safe is a story we tell ourselves.”

This story resonated with me in all sorts of ways. Tolstoy was right:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I’m not sure how I missed this one when I was growing up. Or maybe I didn’t and I just forgot about it. Anyway, it was assigned to my son, so I read along at home. (I won’t go off on too much of a tangential rant about how any prospect of him actually enjoying the book was obliterated by the herky-jerky away the teacher assigned it, required students to all read at the same pace, had questions to complete after each section, etc..)

What can you say? It’s a boy and his dogs. Honest, old-fashioned, sincere. A bit religious in places, perhaps. It’s not a great book, but I can see how it has resonated with so many people for so long. The author knows of what he speaks and loves it.

Nothing about the Holocaust is ever going to be easy to read, but I had a unique difficulty with this one. Hayes’ explanations are very clinical. There are very few adjectives, and even fewer opinions or editorials. At times, it can be quite academic. “There are 4 reasons for this,” “There are six reasons for that,” etc..

But I think the absence of passion in the presentation made me – a Jewish reader – more open to understanding the arguments as Hayes presents them. I appreciate the way he organized the book. He grouped his research and arguments into headings organized by the most common questions he’s been asked, all of which start with “Why?”

I didn’t really find too much to object to in his arguments. I thought, at times, he underplayed economic motivations and definitely thought he let the Catholic Church off easy at times. Generally, though, this is now going to be my resource book for learning and teaching about the Holocaust.

The main piece that really gave me pause was the relationship between the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel and its corollary argument about whether the Israel of today is honoring its founding principles – a controversial and complicated argument, to be sure. Would there be an Israel if there had been no Holocaust?

I am also less optimistic than Hayes about the current state of Holocaust education. I teach high school, and some students can’t put together more than 2-3 sentences about the Holocaust. Very few survivors remain. I think the pendulum has swung radically in a different direction. Schools, once overly obsessed with teaching the Holocaust, have withdrawn almost completely, it seems.

I was also struck by the old idea that once something is put in print, it’s already outdated. I hope Hayes will add a new Preface when the paperback edition comes out, one that addresses the most recent election in the United States.

Hayes in Cleveland – May 25, 2017