Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Monday, January 15, 2018

We can't change the world with violence. Only with ideas.

The Tribe Series by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Book 1 - The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf
Book 2 - The Disappearance of Ember Crow
Book 3 - The Foretelling of Georgie Spider

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Tribe Series is a post-apocalyptic tale of love, friendship, and the depths of our barest humanity, for better and for worse. Its central character is Ashala Wolf, a young Australian girl with special abilities who has become the de facto leader of a Tribe of other children with similar abilities. The Tribe lives together in a forest they refer to as the Firstwood. People with abilities have been denigrated and segregated by the government via a law called the "Citizenship Accords", and Ashala dreams of a world where she and those she loves can live with the greater population as one and in peace. Ashala's best friends, Ember Crow and Georgie Spider, share the starring roles in this trilogy. It turns out Ember is older than the apocalypse (and is actually an Artificial Intelligence being of sorts - I know, Wild!) and Georgie can see possible futures as her ability, which makes her both invaluable and squarely outside the traditional realm of existence. Each girl finds love in the story, and most are lucky enough to survive the series with that love intact. The Tribe is confronted with a variety of villains, both organically human and otherwise, and in the end, it is only through their collective protection of Ashala and her unique ability to make connections that they are able to triumph.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Ok. So I know I didn't really get into the weeds with that spoiler, but this series was really good, and I didn't want to give too much away in case any of my devoted readers want to explore this world for themselves. It's definitely written for a YA audience, but its messages are quite deep and its central tenets are breathtakingly beautiful. 

I wanted to post this today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. day, because it seemed so aligned with this book's message and my feelings after reading it. 

I don't always read the text outside of the work itself (Author's Notes, blurbs, etc.) but for this series, I did. I thought this was a perfect description of the work:
"The Tribe series is a work of Indigenous futurism, a form of storytelling in which Indigenous authors use our cultures, knowledge, and experiences to confront colonial stereotypes and imagine Indigenous futures."
Ashala Wolf's character is deeply tied to the natural realm and the spirits of old, and the author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, is an Indigenous Australian from the Palyku tribe. My only complaint with the work was that I knew she was using the futuristic setting and the 'abilities' piece as an allegory, but I couldn't quite see all the connections.  After the first book, I read the author's note, and then I did the same for the second two books, and the allegory became quite clear.

The "Citizenship Accords" are modeled after the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act of 1944, legislation that applied to Aboriginal people in Australia and wasn't repealed until 1971.
  • In the books, those with abilities have to submit themselves to the government, and unless they are granted a formal 'exemption' because their ability is deemed harmless, they must allow themselves to be imprisoned so they don't pose a danger to society. 
  • From the author's note: "In the actual legislation, restrictions were placed on Aboriginal Australians, including being unable to marry without the government's permission and not being allowed to move around the state. It was easy to lose citizenship by associating with Aboriginal friends or relatives who did not have citizenship." Aboriginals apparently called these citizenship rights 'dog licenses or dog tags' - "a license to be Australian in the land that Aboriginal people had occupied for more than sixty thousand years."
Just in case you thought this kind of legislation was unique to Australia, here are a few North American examples:

The Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of Indian Tribes in this Province, and to Amend the Laws Relating to Indians (commonly known as the Gradual Civilization Act) - passed in Canada in 1857

"Required the "enfranchisement" of any recognized male Indian over the age of 21 "able to speak, read and write either English or the French language readily and well, and is sufficiently advanced in the elementary branches of education and is of good moral character and free from debt." An "enfranchised" Indian would no longer retain the "legal rights and habilities of Indians" and would "no longer be deemed an Indian" but a regular British subject, able to vote. Such enfranchisement was mandatory, but any male Indian could be voluntarily enfranchised despite an inability to read or write, or a lack of school education, so long as he spoke English or French, and was found to be "of sober and industrious habits, free from debt and sufficiently intelligent to be capable of managing his own affairs."Voluntary enfranchisement, however, required a three-year probation term before it would come into legal effect.

Enfranchisement required that Indians choose a last name (to be approved by appointed commissioners) by which they would become legally known. The wife and descendants of an enfranchised Indian would also be enfranchised, and would no longer be considered members of the former tribe, unless they were to regain Indian status through another marriage."

I'm pretty sure I wouldn't qualify for enfranchisement, given my burgeoning student loan debt. There are so many injustices and degradations in this I can't even begin to name them, and this is just one law.

US Federal Native American Legislation (this is a link, FYI)
We were, and still are, in many ways, the worst offenders here. While some of this legislation was designed to support Indigenous folks, it's not hard to do a little digging to see that much of it had some pretty deleterious consequences:

Here's some vocab from the list of laws that might give you a hint about the track we took:
  • Relocation
  • Limitations
  • Removal
The topic of citizenship was (and likely still is) contentious for many Native Americans, but it's worth noting that the Fourteenth Amendment, while it granted citizenship rights to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" and served as a landmark ruling in terms of the enfranchisement of black people, it was quickly read jurisdictionally to exclude Native Americans (and also obviously left out some other people. Ahem. women. Cough.)

But that's enough history for today. On to my thoughts about the books:

What makes books bestsellers? 
In reading this series, I thought a lot about what sells books, and why some flourish over others. I don't know the specifics here, but I was surprised by the wide gap between books like The Hunger Games and the Divergent series and these works, especially because I felt like in a lot of ways, these books were better than either of those series. For those unfamiliar with those texts, they're both YA series set in dystopian/post-apocalyptic worlds, and both were penned by female authors. To be clear, I've read both of those series and like them quite a lot for a variety of reasons; I'm just arguing that this series belongs in that bestseller world.

For reference, here are their 'average bestsellers ranks' according to Amazon:

Hunger Games     #1,285 
Divergent             #8,822
Tribe Series         #378,666

I won't pretend that there aren't thousands of factors that impact publication, promotion, and eventual sales, but I do think it's striking that a series by an Indigenous Australian is so markedly behind two series by white American women.

Poignant parallels and portentous prognostication
While the randomness of my ordering of books for this list may seem arbitrary, if not meaningless, to many, I am consistently struck by the lines of connection that appear so seamlessly between works separated by decades and distance. Take, for instance, this line: 

Ember, to Ash
"This is what you do best. It's just like the Tribe. People come to the Firstwood all hurt and scared and angry at the world, but the only thing you see is the good in them, the greatest version of themselves that they could be. And somehow, most of them grow and change until they start becoming that person."

The next book on my list is Anne Frank, and this is perhaps her most famous quote: 

"In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."

On feeling...
Georgie, to Ash: "Ash, you feel things deeply - all the way to your bones."  I loved this line, because I think it accurately describes the way I feel things. I listened to the BBC News report on NPR the other day, and I was completely overwhelmed by the time I got to my destination. Between the mudslides in California, the civil war in Yemen, and the continuing conflict in Syria, I felt bereft and broken. I'm sure that it's not uncommon to be saddened by news reports, but I do wonder if others have the same intensity of emotion on hearing such things. 

Herm-oh-ninny
So I only had one other complaint (really more of an agree-to-disagree moment) in these books, and it happened when someone phonetically spelled out the pronunciation of the main character's name as "A-shay-la" and I thought, oh NO I thought it was "A-Shah-la". Obviously as the author you get to choose how your characters' names are pronounced, and for all I know, this name could have depth I am unaware of, but I secretly kept calling her A-shah-la in my head. ;)

Heteronormative lovey-dovey
I liked that each of the three main ladies got a thoughtful and kind partner, but I was a little disappointed in how traditional and (to be honest) a little trite, these romances were. Each girl was a force to be reckoned with, but then also later someone who shined best when supported by this strong man, and who never wanted to be apart from him. I guess I just felt like they were a little young to be all coupled up, and I liked them as individuals and ladies, too. 

Ancestral ties
I loved reading about Kwaymullina's thought process in crafting the book, and her inspirations: 
"For me, the best storytellers I know are Aboriginal Elders. So in writing about the the Tribe, I thought about the way the Elders draw you into a tale that is always more than it first appears. I thought, too, about the generations of Palyku women who have gone before me, who walked red earth and told the ancient tales of my people beneath the glittering stars of a desert night."
em·pa·thy
ˈempəTHē/
noun
  1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.


I love books that focus on empathy, and I also love how much the act of reading contributes to empathy. Here's one of my favorite lines from one of this book's heroes, Alexander Hoffman:
"Advances in technology could never compensate for failures in empathy."
Referent/Reverberation
As with many books that deal with the taking of human life, this series was transparent about the challenges of battle. This line from Ashala:

"So if you're fighting for your life, or someone else's life, then you do whatever you have to. Doesn't mean you have to like it. Doesn't mean you won't feel bad about it afterward. But we fight back."

Reminded me of this interior monologue of Roberto's in For Whom the Bell Tolls:
"Don't you know it is wrong to kill? Yes. But you do it? Yes. And you still believe absolutely that your cause is right? Yes. 
But you mustn't believe in killing. You must do it as a necessity but you must not believe in it. Because if you are not absolutely straight in your head you have no right to do the things you do for all of them are crimes and no man has a right to take another man's life unless it is to prevent something worse happening to other people."
Ents and Ent-wives
I didn't really touch on them in the spoiler, but saurs are a central force in this series; they're essentially dinosaurs, but they also have telepathic abilities. One of my favorite lines in the book was this line, spoken by Connor, Ashala's boyfriend, to her:
  • "We are not saur. We are trees." For some reason it reminded me of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings and the ongoing search for the Entwives, in both its depth and its spirituality.
The end smells like eucalyptus
When Ashala is near death (which happens more often than the average person), the end for her smells like eucalyptus, which is fitting, since the Firstwood is full of them, and Ashala feels that this is her origin point. I'm not sure what the end would smell like for me. Lilacs, maybe? Or roses? What would it smell like for you?

Mr. Snuffles and Starbeauty
Two of my favorite characters were animals, and loosely termed as pets. One was a pug named 'Mr. Snuffles', the other was an old spirit being named Starbeauty, who another character thought was his pet. She thought of him as her pet. One of my favorite lines, from Starbeauty to a human:
  • "Explanations are not of cat." lolz.
New words I learned, all of which happen to be Australian flora:

waratah - an Australian-endemic genus of five species of large shrubs or small trees, native to the southeastern parts of Australia (New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania). (pictured left)

ylang-ylang - an aromatic tree native to the Philippines, having fragrant yellow drooping flowers that yield a volatile oil used in perfumery (pictured right)

tuarts - eucalyptus trees, Eucalyptus gomphocephala, of Australia, yielding very durable light-coloured timber (pictured bottom left)

gungurru - Eucalyptus caesia, commonly known as caesia, gungurru or silver princess, endemic to Western Australia. The name "silver" refers to the white powder that covers the branches, flower buds and fruit. "Gungurru" comes from the name used by the indigenous Noongar people. pictured bottom right

Lines I liked:
  • "In such a world, the fact that we humans may not always understand the voices of other beings - the cry of Crow, the murmurings of Rain or Wind, or the slow rumble of Rock - does not mean those voices do not exist."
  • "The Tribe had moved out of the caves about a week ago, more than willing to exchange the cold nights and mornings of early spring for open sky above our heads and the lemony scent of the tuarts in bloom."
I'll leave you with a few lines I feel most poignantly capture the spirit of both this book, and, appropriately, this day. One is from the novel, one from the final author's note.
"What is it to be human? If our species has a single, all-powerful ability, it is to imagine. It is in us all to dream of a better world."
"Ashala speaks of a fight bigger than any that has gone before, but it is not a conflict between the privileged of her society and those who are not. It is a fight between those who want to stop the hating and those who don't. I believe humanity is in that fight now, and it might well define what is to come for our species. In The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, a better future is ultimately created by the global interconnection of those who choose compassion over intolerance, courage over fear, and love over hate. 
Perhaps this could be the real world."
On this of all days, let us remind ourselves to see the good in people, choose compassion over intolerance, courage over fear, and love over hate. If enough of us imagine, perhaps this could be the real world. Onwards to Anne Frank. 

Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is just that. 24 hours with a man whose life is not his own. Ivan Denisovich, known for most of the book simply as Shukhov, is serving a sentence at a hard labor camp in the Soviet Union. His crime was ambiguous at best, a farcical excuse for a harsh regime to dramatically shift the course of his life. We spend the day with Shukhov at this labor camp in Siberia and see the world through his eyes. We freeze with him in the bitter temperatures, we starve with him as he lays bricks in brutal conditions on scraps of food, we dream with him of getting warm, and we feel the bitter absurdity of his condition. What happens in the plot of the book itself is not insignificant, but rather, ancillary. It feeds the larger picture of Shukhov's world, and it paints a vivid fictional portrait of a very real phenomenon, but you don't walk away from the book thinking about which character did what; you walk away from the book with the labor camp's frosty imprint still on you, the hunger and anger and confinement still in you, wondering how humans could ever have done this to each other.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear readers, 

I have been absent for quite some time, and I really should apologize, since I finished this book several weeks ago, but between the holidays and strep throat and a national conference in Miami, my mind was elsewhere. Now that I have a little more leisure time to myself again, here are my thoughts.

This book was... striking. When I initially chose works for this second set of books, I added 'politically repressed authors' almost as an afterthought, which I realize now is a mark of the privilege of living and creating and breathing in a country that doesn't suppress speech or dissent. And while there are so MANY things wrong in this country right now, that is one right thing that we have had since we started out, and that is a true treasure. 

"One Day..." had a fascinating and tumultuous journey to publication. I don't usually read about context for a book, so I made myself wait to read about it until after I'd experienced the novel. Here's what I learned:
  • Solzhenitsyn wrote "One Day..." in 1957 after being released from exile that followed his imprisonment at a gulag (labor camp) from 1945 to 1953. The camp in the book is one Solzhenitsyn spent some time at, which was located in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan.
  • He was imprisoned for "writing derogatory comments in letters to friends about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin". So basically, he had an opinion, like everyone does in America today, and he spent 8 years imprisoned in a labor camp. 
  • In 1962, Solzhenitsyn sent his manuscript to 'Novy Mir', a Russian literary magazine. The editor submitted the manuscript to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish it (given that until this time, Soviet writers had not even been allowed to REFER to the camps' existence). It was passed on to Khrushchev, who ultimately authorized its publication (STILL WITH SOME CENSORSHIP). 
So not only did Solzhenitsyn take the time to write a brilliant novel, but he also twiddled his thumbs (or, more likely, wrote more brilliant stuff) while his ass-backwards country got their act together enough to allow him to publish said novel which also basically and fundamentally just wanted to TELL THE TRUTH. Pretty awesome, if you ask me. 

The rest of my thoughts, in no real order:
  • A good book can be about miserable things and still be captivating. I wrote this down in the margins soon after I started. I kept not wanting to read 'Out of Africa' not because it wasn't describing nice and often beautiful things, but because I never felt compelled to continue. A good book should compel you to keep reading it.  Not in a Dan Brown, 'page-turner and then forget everything you read' kind of way. More like a J.K. Rowling, 'sticks-with-you and makes you shift your worldview a little" kind of way. There was no MYSTERY here. The book is called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". So you knew immediately he was in a labor camp, and you knew pretty much from jump that he wasn't going anywhere. And yet, the book was stunning. It was captivating not because it was about sadness or adventure, but because it so thoughtfully and articulately and intimately shared the excruciating and nonsensical and never-ending pain brought about by politicians and despots. 
  • The feel of a Russian novel, even in translation. By my count, I've now read 8 novels by Russians, and while there's certainly a marked difference between Kafka and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there was something about this book that felt very distinctly Russian. Given that so much of this work was colloquialized, and almost slangy in nature, I think this is a huge credit to the translator for capturing this feeling.
Climate-dependent misery
I thought a lot of about what this would look like if it were happening in America today, and I couldn't quite grasp it, in part because we just don't have a place that's quite that cold! How convenient for the Soviet Union that it was so large, and that so much of it was so unspeakably cold. A few lines on the temperature:
  • If it showed forty-one below, they weren't supposed to be marched out to work. OH OK. Yes, we draw the line at forty-one below. I mean, that's just unReasonable, amirite?
  • It's warmed up a bit. Eighteen below, no more. Good weather for bricklaying. This is a line from Shukhov, and he's NOT joking. He legit thinks this is pretty good weather for bricklaying. 
Labor camp manners
"Most men eat with their caps on, but they take their time, angling for gluey scraps of rotten little fish under the leaves of frost-blackened cabbage, and spitting the bones onto the table .When there's a mountain of them, somebody will sweep them off before the next gang sits down, and they will be crunched to powder underfoot.
  Spitting bones out on the floor is considered bad manners." I laughed super hard at this line and spat out some of my coffee on the airplane. It's so delightfully hilarious and desperate and grotesque all at once. It reminded me of Gollum spitting out his stolen fish in the cave. 

Camp rules are different than the outside world
"It was the sort of thing that happens only in camp: Stepan Grigorich had advised Vdovushkin to call himself a medical orderly and had given him the job. Vdovushkin was now practicing intravenous injections on ignorant prisoners and meek Lithuanians and Estonians, to whom it would never occur that a medical orderly could be nothing of the kind, but a former student of literature, arrested in his second year of university." This was a fascinating flipside view -- certainly, not helpful for the prisoners that the medical orderly had no qualifications, but an interesting reminder that in times of war or desperation or imprisonment, often opportunities arise in mysterious ways. 

Empathy/experience/re-framing the world
I wrote this note at the back of my book, and I've thought about it a lot since I finished the book. If you're a consistent reader of my blob, you'll know that I'm a big believer in the research indicating that reading increases a person's ability to experience empathy. This book was a searing reminder; when I got sick, when I felt stressed about work, when I got depressed about my seemingly never-ending debt, I saw Shukhov waiting to be searched in the frozen tundra, unable to feel his toes. When I sipped my coffee on the airplane, it became not a mediocre excuse for a beloved beverage, but an unimagined delight in a world replete with fish soup and inadequate portions. Even now as I write this blog, I feel the distinct pleasure in being warm, a feeling which, at least in my world, is so generally expected and taken for granted. 

This, friends, is the magic of books.

Here are a few examples that struck me:
  • "In the year just beginning - 1951 - Shukhov was entitled to write two letters." We so rarely even take the TIME to write letters today, and Shukhov had a limited allowance? What joy and luck we have in being able to write to anyone at any time, free from censorship or restraint.
  • "Since he'd been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village - whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kohkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting." All the men in the camp were somewhere else beforehand. And I think just about categorically, life was better beforehand. I don't know how you adjust to this new normal, or how you return to what you once had on the off chance that you survive a camp. What would you miss most if it was taken from you?
  • "Apart from sleep, an old lag can call his life his own only for ten minutes at breakfast time, five at lunchtime, and five more at suppertime." This reminded me very much of the line in "Beloved" about slaves having only Sunday mornings to themselves on the plantation at Sweet Home. 
  • "No zek [prisoner] ever lays eyes on a clock or a watch. What good would it do him, anyway? All a zek needs to know is - how soon is reveille? How long till work parade? Till dinnertime? Till lights-out?" Can you imagine how you would feel if time was taken away from you? I think I would find it simultaneously freeing and unsettling. 
How can we possibly have anything in common?
Sometimes I pick up a book and think, this will be interesting, but I don't expect to have anything in common with this narrator. After all, I'm not currently imprisoned in a labor camp, I'm not Russian, I'm not a man, I'm not living in the 1940s in a politically repressed country. And then something like this line happens:
  • "'Long time since we had a blizzard! Not a single one all winter. What sort of winter is that?The gang all sighed for the blizzards they hadn't had." And just like that, Shukhov and I are of one mind, longing for a solid blizzard. 
A little new vocabulary I learned:
taiga - the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes, especially that between the tundra and steppes of Siberia and North America (you know, like that nice frozen part of Kazakhstan where this labor camp was held)

kolkhoz - a collective farm in the former Soviet Union

patronymic - a name derived from the name of a father or ancestor, typically by the addition of a prefix or suffix (i.e., Johnson, O'Brien, Ivanovich)

Referents and reverberations (A section where I place this book on a timeline of other books it reminded me of, coming both before and after it in history, and share quotes that resonate)

The Trial (1925)
"Oh, I see," said the inspector. "You've misunderstood me; you're under arrest, certainly, but that's not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life." Kakfa captures this absurd but crazy and very real political world, and I was reminded of it often in reading "One Day..."

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
"What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?" I thought a lot about what it must have been like for Solzhenitsyn to re-enter the world after an experience like this. I wonder how many thousands of men had to learn how to be after this insanity.

A Farewell to Arms (1929)
"Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." In today's world, communism and labor camps are just words we pause briefly on before we transition to more 'current' ideas or topics. This book injects a face and a humanity that permanizes these words and 'isms' into a very real lived experience.

Catch-22 (1961)
“History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; WHICH men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.  Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” In case you hadn't realized it, war is a fairly constant theme here, which is interesting given that this book isn't explicitly about one war or conflict. I think what resonated with me so deeply was the idea that generations of men were permanently altered; trajectories of lives shifted starkly, and little, if any, choice in the matter was to be had.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

A Clockwork Orange (1962)
"The night belonged to me and my droogs and all the rest of the nadsats, and the starry bourgeois lurked indoors drinking in the gloopy worldcasts, but the day was for the starry ones, and there always seemed to be more rozzes or millicents about during the day, too." If you've read my blob you know that I didn't LOVE this book, but I did have to admit that the 'zeks' reminded me in a pleasant way of Burgess and his lingo.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
"So it goes." This book had a quality that seemed to say, 'and so what?' Sort of like, this awful thing happened, and it was arbitrary and brutal and unfair and deeply disconcerting and also kind of life-ruining, but then also, doesn't life keep happening in the background and before and after? 

Beloved (1987)
"For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the afterlight of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halle examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week." Not the same for a host of reasons, but this book showed a kind of enslavement that was harrowing in its own way.

Title possibilities
I often keep a running list of sentences that I think encapsulate the work and would make a good title. Here are the others I considered for this post:
  • What would you expect to find on a zek in the morning?
  • A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually. 
  • What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery.
  • You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like. 
  • Who is the convict's worst enemy? Another convict.
  • He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. 
I hope you haven't found this post too depressing, and that you've been able to experience the sense of gratitude and empathy I found after sharing Shukhov's world for a day. I'll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the book (albeit a bit of a heartbreaker).

Shukhov, on not letting his family send him care packages:
"He knew what those parcels cost, and you couldn't go on milking your family for ten years on end. Better to do without.
  That's what he'd decided, but whenever anybody in the gang or the hut got a parcel (somebody did almost every day) he felt a pang - why isn't it for me? And although he had strictly forbidden his wife to send anything even at Easter, and never went to look at the list on the post - except for some some rich workmate - he sometimes found himself expecting somebody to come running and say:
 'Why don't you go and get it, Shukhov? There's a parcel for you.'
 Nobody came running."

 Shukhov, Solzhenitsyn, I have a package for you. It's been decades now since you were stuck in that inhumane, absurd hellhole, and almost a decade since you left this world, but I'll send you a package filled with baked treats, and sweet meats, and everything that reminds you of home. Go and get it, Shukhov. I promise this time there's a parcel for you, friend.

Keep each other safe.
Keep faith. 
Good night.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

They have not got nine in Swaheli.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Out of Africa is a story wherein a Danish woman owns a coffee farm in Kenya and runs it for awhile, and then she doesn't anymore. There are lots of other people on the farm, some who just live there, some who work for her, and some who are her friends. The farm is pretty, but hard to maintain, and eventually the lady is forced to sell it. She must return home to Denmark, but feels like she has left her home in Africa.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Hi blobbists!

If that felt like a pretty short plot summary, it's because (a) I didn't like this book very much, and (b) not very much happened in it. Not kidding. Even when things did happen, it was sort of somehow not very interesting. Sorry, Isak, it's the truth.

I read the one page description of the author's life after I finished the book, and immediately thought, 'her life was WAY more interesting than this book!' Which I feel like means she did something wrong there. Missed opportunity. Ah well!

Here are my thoughts, some pleasant, some less so:

My book was full of notes, which got progressively angrier and more annoyed as I read further in the book. Mostly, there's a lot of "UGH" and "UNACCEPTABLE" and "THAT'S RELATIVE", but here's my favorite, a little running list I made in the back:

THINGS I DON'T LIKE ABOUT HER
- Hunter - she hunts and goes on safari, and kills a bunch of lions, and I just was Not here for it. 
- Conqueror - I chose this book because so few 'classics' by women make it out there, but she is a conqueror through and through, and I couldn't forgive her for it.
- Fake single woman - her husband is MYSTERIOUSLY mentioned on page 274 and then never again. According to her bio, they split up (btws he was her second cousin and he gave her SYPHILIS - #somehusband), and then she started a love affair. But to be clear, there was no love obviously expressed in this book. I didn't know they were a romantic item until after I read that bit in the bio.
- Needed an editor - Certainly, there are so many other people I could yell at for this (JOYCE, TOLSTOY, need I go on?) and I'm glad that at least a woman was allowed the same rambling that white men were, but how about we just None of us ramble, and we 'be brief, say what's core', as we say in BT. 
- Does she have a name? - Apparently, when you google the protagonist of Out of Africa, the internet proudly proclaims that it is the Baroness Tania von Blixen, which would, I suppose, make sense as her married name, since her husband was Baron Blixen, but we would only know as much because on EXACTLY ONE PAGE we see the name "Tania". OK, young boy narrator-Proust-wannabe.
-Super un'woke' - I know it's not really fair to compare attitudes across periods of time, but even for someone who was sort of 'woke' for her time, she was SO SO SO un'woke', and it was just excruciating to read after reading A Lesson Before Dying. 
- Doesn't bother to learn much Swahili or Masai - She doesn't spend much time learning the languages of the area, which I found to be very condescending, imperialistic, and entitled. 
- Cares more about African animals than African people - She expresses concern at times for the people around her who are native to Kenya, but she seems to respect and admire the animals she hunts more than she respects the people of Kenya, which I found deeply disturbing.

Let's make some SWEEPING generalizations - All frogs love CHEESE!
She falls into the classic 'making generalizations about whole groups of people' habit quite a lot. Here are just a few examples:
  • The Somali women themselves had dignified, gentle ways, and were hospitable and gay, with a laughter like silver bells.
  • All Africans are the same in these rites. oh sure, ALL Somalis. ALL Africans. 
What does a book mean to you?
There were a few moments when I felt a kinship with Tania, or whatever her name was. These lines about reading books abroad reminded me of Lexie reading books in the Peace Corps houses, and how pleasant it was when a good one came around:
  • In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he ay have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.
NO peelers for me, please, knives will do just fine!
While I will not make sweeping generalizations about ALL Africans, I will say that there were a few moments that put me in mind of my brother-in-law, Lune, from Sénégal, and moments, particularly in the kitchen, we've shared. He often just peeled vegetables with a knife, and seemed to think peelers were somehow wasting the best parts of the vegetable. He also once asked us when he was trying to cut open a coconut if we had a machete, and when we said no, he just threw the coconut on the bricks really hard and was like, "no problem! No need!" 

There's a similar story about her teaching a boy to cook that I loved:
  • He scorned all complicated tools, as if impatient of too much independence in them, and when I gave him a machine for beating eggs he set it aside to rust, and beat whites of egg with a weeding knife that I had had to weed the lawn with, and his whites of eggs towered up like light clouds."
A darkness falls upon you
I almost resentfully felt a kinship with the main character when she was getting ready to leave Africa, and she described some moments of terror and near madness, mostly because they reminded me of how I've felt at certain points in my life, and especially in France at the end of my time there:
  • fell upon me like a darkness, and in a way I was frightened of it, as of a sort of derangement. On this Thursday in Nairobi, the nightmare unexpectedly stole upon me, and grew so strong that I wondered if I were beginning to go mad." It's possible she was depressed, or suffered from mental illness, as her father commit suicide (according to her bio) but in any case, I rarely see people describing the way I experience life, even in fleeting moments, so it was nice to feel like I wasn't alone for once.
INTERSECTIONALITY is key, people.
In case you haven't heard of the term, here's a quick definition:

intersectionality - the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Reading this book was a great reminder that while I chose many authors on my second list because they were underrepresented or repressed or oppressed in some facet of their being, they may also be the oppressor in another piece of their identity, as was the case here. Just good food for thought.

The Masai
While in general, I did not like to trust her descriptions of Kenyans or their traditions because I felt like she was trying to tell the story of their lives FOR them, instead of write a book about them, I did enjoy hearing about the Masai:
  • A Masai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic; -daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.
Shh! The little Swedish Censor is sweeping!
While this book was not what I would call a laugh riot, there were a few moments that I found very amusing, like this one, on her letters being censored during the war:
  • He can never have found anything the least suspicious in them, but he came, I believe, within a monotonous life, to take an interest in the people on whom they turned, and to read my letters as you read a serial in a magazine. I used to add in my own letters a few threats against our Censor, to be carried out after the end of the war, for him to read.
1, 2, 3, 5, 11, 18, 35, 36
This was my favorite exchange. She recounts trying to learn some Swahili (FINALLY) from a Swede (god forbid she learn from a Native speaker) but apparently the word 'nine' has a 'dubious ring to it' in Swedish, so this happened:

'They have not got nine in Swaheli."
   'You mean,' I said, 'that they can only count as far as eight?'
'Oh, no', he said quickly. 'They have got ten, eleven, twelve, and so on. But they have not got nine.'
   'Does that work?' I asked, wondering. 'What do they do when they come to nineteen?'
'They have not got nineteen either', he said, blushing, but very firm, 'nor ninety, nor nine hundred' - for these words in Swaheli are constructed out of the number nine, -'But apart from that they have got all our numbers.'
   'The idea of this system for a long time gave me much to think of, and for some reason a great pleasure. Here, I thought, was a people who have got originality of mind, and courage to break with the pedantry of the numeral series." lollllllz. 

Yes, they have fireflies in Africa, folks, in case you weren't sure.
I loved the universality of this moment, because it reminded me of driving on Mine Road in the summertime at night, and my parents turning off the headlights for a moment so we could swim in the sea of fireflies.
  • Here in the highlands, when the long rains are over, and in the first week of June nights begin to be cold, we get the fireflies in the woods. On an evening you will see two or three of them, adventurous lonely stars floating in the clear air, rising and lowering, as if upon waves, or as if curtseying. For some reason they keep within a certain height, four or five feet, above the ground. It is impossible then not to imagine that a whole crowd of children of six or seven years, are running through the dark forest carrying candles, little sticks dipped in a magic fire, joyously jumping up and down, and gambolling as they run, and swinging their small pale torches merrily.
New words for me
Eland - a spiral-horned African antelope that lives in open woodland and grassland. It is the largest of the antelopes.

marmiton - a chef's assistant, or a kitchen-boy. Actually a French word, I think.
Everyone's favorite troglodyte

troglodyte - (especially in prehistoric times) a person who lived in a cave; a hermit; a person who is regarded as being deliberately ignorant or old-fashioned. 

risibility - the tendency to laugh often and easily

Lines I liked
  • They had real courage: the unadulterated liking of danger, -the true answer of creation to the announcement of their lot, -the echo from the earth when heaven had spoken.
  • The air in the forest was cool like water, and filled with the scent of plants, and in the beginning of the long rains when the creepers flowered, you rode through sphere after sphere of fragrance.
  • But the real performers, the indefatigable young dancers, brought the glory and luxury of the festivity with them, they were immune to foreign influence, and concentrated upon the sweetness and fire within themselves. One thing only did they demand from the outside world: a space of level ground to dance on."
I'm off to Russia, to see Mr. Denisovitch, but I'll leave you with one final line, and you can guess what it reminded me of:

"In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

Anyone? A little Sylvia, from The Bell Jar...

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am."

Love to you all, and happy reading!