In Their Path (Southgate and Stewart)

I admit that I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I’d heard about Ms. Southgate’s walk long before I finally found the book, and the distance involved just staggered me. The book is subtitled “A Grandmother’s 519-mile Underground Railroad Walk.” I am not sure who wrote the comment – Southgate or Stewart – but I think they were right when they said the book is part-memoir, part-history, and part-travel book. And I loved all three parts. I had no idea of the extent of Ohio’s connection to the Underground Railroad and, well, Ms. Southgate made me want to follow her path (though I will probably spend more time in the car than she did). I learned so much about specific individuals involved in the Underground Railroad, mostly black and some white, and this is what I think many of us need – a reminder that this was not just a concept and not just Harriet Tubman. These were human beings taking remarkable risks to get something so many of us take for granted – freedom.

I also appreciated the tone of Ms. Southgate’s presentation of her walk. She is not afraid to portray herself as grumpy, cranky or even in pain. Her humor and her resolve make the book so very real. She was, it seemed to me, just doing something she thought was right and essential. She seemed so driven by her sense of purpose. I have admired her since I first heard of the walk, and now I have even more reasons to do so.

I wholeheartedly support the preservation of all of the nooks and crannies and corners and houses and barns involved in the Underground Railroad. The stories must be told. Still, I wonder if we might be able to be more creative about what to do with them. People tended, in this book, to want all of them to become museums and that makes me concerned about their longevity.

Read the book, study the history, follow Southgate’s path and spread the word.

I am going to create a new genre in honor of this book. I am going to call it a Gateway Book, one that makes you want to read more, do more, learn more, and see more. This book does all of that.

I’d love to teach this one along with Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Restore Cleveland Hope

Advertisements

Moments of Reprieve (Levi)

I am not sure what to call the stories Levi presents, but essays (what’s on the cover) seems wrong. They are more than vignettes. They are, perhaps, sketches of decency amidst the everyday horror of Levi’s experience at Auschwitz. In addition to the beauty evoked by Levi’s account of the surprising appearance of a violin or the astonishing decision by a prisoner to ask for his food to be saved for a day because it was Yom Kippur (and the equally astonishing decision to grant this request) is Levi’s apparent lack of bitterness. His criticisms are gentle but definitive. Perhaps it’s because he knows that the horrors have been described elsewhere. I was surprised to learn that he’d read biographies of various leading Nazis.

These stories, these as true as they can be stories (Levi acknowledges the limits of memory and perspective) areas human and detailed and as moving as language can create. Each one could become a whole novel. Instead, Levi paints his sketch and leaves the gaps and the colors and the implications for his readers to supply.

I Am Malala (Yousafzai with McCormick)

I think the idea of Young Readers Editions of certain books is great. In this case, the version for Young Readers might even be better. It’s not as dense and is definitely much more focused than the original version written with Christina Lamb. That story is much more political one; this version is, appropriately, the memoir of a remarkable teenager. Of course it’s hard to tell whether it’s Malala or Patricia McCormick here, but there is some stylistic flair in this version.

There can be no doubt. Malala is a remarkable person, an inspiration to us all. I look forward to watching and supporting her work in the years to come.

the Malala Fund

Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side (Spewack)

I picked up this memoir at The Tenement Museum in New York, a place well worth your time. And it’s titled correctly. The ‘streets’ are indeed one of the main characters. Desperate to escape cramped conditions, lives were lived in those streets. And it seems you moved often, so you could mark eras by the name of the street where you lived. Spewack’s details bring these streets to life, but she also evokes her own family, particularly her mother and one of her younger brothers. She also makes clear the impact that living at the whim of the charities had on her and her family. As her mother puts it, “It’s easy to talk away the lives of the poor.” And then, there is that heartbreaking ending.

The Argonauts (Nelson)

This book is difficult to describe or to even categorize. The back of the book calls it “Memoir / Criticism,” a combination I’ve not seen before. At times, it felt like I was walking into the middle of a conversation, but that is probably more of a reflection of a lack of experience and knowledge when it comes to the language and issues of gender and sexuality. I was definitely struck by Nelson’s observation that to use language, as she does, is to name and names, indeed words, no matter how many you use, are limiting. And when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, it seems like writing on these issues is akin to trying to lasso the wind. This prompted Nelson’s title:

I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections whick will be forever new.”

I thought he passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.

I also appreciated the way Nelson questioned the priorities of the queer community when it comes to the military and marriage. She writes, “if we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.” It was not deliberate, but it felt relevant to read this on the same day the White House announced its absurd and vicious intention to ban transgender people from the military. If I am going to enter that conversation, I need to make sure I enter appropriately, and Nelson has opened the door for me a bit. I need to enter without limits and without limiting anyone else.

Much of the book also centers on Nelson’s experience with pregnancy and her “fluidly gendered partner,” Harry. Their attempts, eventually successful, to have a child are juxtaposed with the need for both of them to deal with their respective mothers, both of whom are dying. And for a time, Nelson has a stalker.

Even if I did not always understand the conversation here, I found Nelson’s writing electric. And funny (see above). I look forward to reading more.

The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Zakaria)

The first book I am teaching next year is I Am Malala, so I want to learn more about Pakistan. This book seemed like an interesting way into the history of the country. It combines the author’s personal family story, focusing on her Aunt, the wife of the title, with the story of the country.

It helped as an atmospheric piece, but the structure did not help me. I wonder what it would have been like if she’d just focused on her aunt’s story as a lens through which to view the changing society. Alternatively, I wish the individual sections could have been longer so I could have had a better chance to grasp the cultural, political, and historical details involved in growing up in Pakistan.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Vance)

I’ve very much appreciated what I’ve seen as a recent trend of producing and sharing reading lists for issues and questions that, judging by the number of these lists, a decent number of people are having trouble understanding. There are reading lists to accompany Beyonce’s Lemonade, the Syrian refugee crisis, Ferguson, etc.. I will never get through them all, but that won’t stop me from trying.

So it was no surprise to me when reading lists emerged for those of us (myself included) trying to understand the recent Presidential election. Vance’s book was always on these lists, and I resolved to wait for the paperback. Then I learned that Vance was coming to Ohio to lead a program called Our Ohio Renewal. So I decided to splurge for the hardback.

It’s an interesting and pretty quick read. And it is about a community I’ve only experienced a bit – I live in Ohio and have family (that I haven’t seen for a long, long time for reasons that seem to fit the character of the people Vance describes) in West Virginia. Vance interweaves his own story with the story of his two main hometowns (one in Kentucky, one in Ohio) in an effort to explain why the area has turned (like him) Republican. Though he identifies a range of issues, the one that seems to spark the most passion in him is the way he and his family perceive that the welfare system has destroyed the desire of members of his community to work while still allowing them to afford the likes of t-bone steaks and cell phones.

It comes across as a dangerously oversimplified argument. Though he shows that he’s done his homework elsewhere,  in his defense of the ruinous nature of the welfare state, he resorts to a bandwagon argument (“many in the working class saw precisely what I did”) and an inflammatory quotation, one not worth repeating here (140, if you have the book).

Vance does not quite resort to the exceptionalism argument. He knows that “somebody along the line gave [him] some help.” He describes a remarkable, if unconventional, family structure and gives them credit for making sure he didn’t become a statistic. And I could definitely support some of the policy prescriptions he advocates near the end of the book. And I do support the notion of helping individuals learn to make better decisions. For me, it’s a both-and situation, something that seems to elude Vance. He talks about how his beloved Mamaw seemed to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. His tone is one of gentle chiding for her inconsistency or apparent contradictions. (This seems to be Vance’s most damning comments about everyone – that they don’t recognize their own contradictions. Isn’t this what makes us human?) I think he misses the point here. The grandmother he describes does not seem to care one bit for Democrats or Republicans. She cares for what helps people, particularly her family and especially children.

So, read it? Sure. It’s illuminating, but I am not sure I see enough insight here for him to lead Our Ohio Renewal. We’ll see.

What’s next for me on this particular syllabus? Maybe this? White Trash – Isenberg. Has anyone read it? Other suggestions?