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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Surely the time will come when we are people again, and not just Jews.

The Diary of a Young Girl (originally Het Achterhuis, or The Secret Annex) by Anne Frank

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Unlike nearly all the other works I've read so far, this is not a work of fiction. It is a collection of letters that compose the diary of a young woman living in Amsterdam in the early 1940s during World War II. Now a household name, Anne Frank was simply a teenager when she started her diary, looking for a friend to hear her thoughts. It is perhaps no accident that Anne's last name is Frank, for there is no better word to describe her letters. She doesn't think they will ever be read, and so she is honest about everything, from her own insecurities to her deep-seated fears and her questioning of our collective humanity. Because Anne and her family are Jewish, they enter hiding shortly after the diary begins, when Anne is just thirteen years old. She moves into 'the secret annex', a hidden apartment attached to a warehouse where her father used to work, with her mother, her sister, and another family, the Van Daan's*. The Van Daan's have one son, Peter, and he brings his cat, Mouschi. The coterie is joined by just one other member during their time in hiding, Dussel, a dentist, and a fellow Jew. As readers, we are privy to all the ups and downs of their time in hiding, and bear witness to the end of Anne's adolescence and the birth of her independence. After two years in the secret annex, Anne's diary comes to an abrupt end. Through the work of many historians and anecdotal accounts, we now know that the occupants of the annex were discovered by the Gestapo and arrested in August of 1944. They were all transported to concentration camps, and Anne's father, Otto, was the only one to survive the war. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen, after being transferred from Auschwitz, in early 1945. She died six months shy of the end of the war, and roughly three months before her sixteenth birthday.
*NB: Some of the names in Anne's diary were modified to preserve anonymity.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear readers, 
     I read this book in two days. Two nights, to be honest. While I don't think I've ever read it before, I knew the ending, and I knew that I couldn't stand to stretch it out. After I finished it, I felt like something had broken inside me. It's been almost a week since then, and this is the first day I felt like I could handle writing about the experience. 
     This is not the saddest book I have ever read. In fact, it is not even a sad book. But, as with Shukhov, as with Sethe, as with Ashala and Malcolm and Bigger Thomas, I knew that's Anne's story was a piece of heartbreaking historical truth. So the words were different this time, and they hurt me a little more.
    That being said, I have so much I want to share with you from Anne's 'Het Achterhuis'. So I hope that you will grab a cozy blanket, a box of tissues (if you're a weeper like me), and a warm mug of something tasty, and settle in for this literary adventure with me.

How would you feel if someone published your diary?
This thought kept coming back to me as I read Anne's letters. Each entry is a letter, because, in Anne's words, "I want this diary itself to be my friend, and I shall call my friend Kitty." In a way, the letter format makes it feel less intrusive, because Anne wants to share her thoughts and feelings and experiences with Kitty. But it is interesting to think about whether Anne would have wanted the world to read her innermost thoughts. She's an aspiring writer, though, and several times says she intends to try to publish her stories, and possibly this diary itself as a story, so it's not such a far leap, I suppose. Miep Gies, one of the friends and trusted helpers of the Frank family, kept the letters after the arrest and eventually returned them to Anne's father after the war. Otto Frank apparently circulated copies of the diary to his close friends and family as a memorial to his wife and daughters, and eventually he decided to publish it. It has since been translated to over 60 languages. Here are a few of my favorite lines about Anne the writer.
  • It's an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I - nor for that matter anyone else - will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart. such beautiful reasons for wanting to start a diary, I think. 
  • Will I ever be able to write anything great? 
  • You've known for a long time that my greatest wish is to become a journalist someday and later on a famous writer. Whether these leanings towards greatness (or insanity?) will ever materialize remains to be seen, but I certainly have the subjects in my mind.
Citizenship Accords
Well blobbists, if you're a devoted fan, you'll be familiar with the Citizenship Accords, since I just blobbed about them in the Tribe series. They are fictional, but modeled after real legislation in Australia focused on restrictions toward indigenous folks.

I couldn't help but think of the Citizenship Accords when I read the early part of Anne's experience as a Jew in Amsterdam. Here's a quick reference test:

Did you ride a bicycle today?
Did you take public transportation?
Did you drive somewhere?
Did you shop for something before 3 pm or after 5 pm?
Did you leave the house after 8 pm? (even to your own back yard?)

If you did any of the above, you had more freedom than Jews in Amsterdam just before the Franks went into hiding.

While this book articulates the challenges of being Jewish in such a toxic and violent time for them, Anne frequently expresses her affection and gratitude for those who have reached out to help them and bucked the government - the Dutch family friends, acquaintances who deliver food, the few who keep the secret safe. I feel I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I recently learned that my grandmother Doris's cousin, Guido de Görgey, was just such an ally during the war. 

His story can be found here. Here's an excerpt:
Guido de Görgey showed exceptional courage when he deserted the Hungarian army after the Nazi occupation of Hungary to risk his own life saving Jews from certain death. Guido de Görgey, together with his mother (Frederika de Görgey) and his friend Jenő Thassy, ended up saving the lives of more than a hundred people in 1944-1945. Guido eventually had to go into hiding as well. He had been part of an underground resistance group during the war, helping not only to hide Jews but also to carry out acts of sabotage against the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators.
I always like to think that were I to stand face-to-face with something akin to the Holocaust, or slavery, that I would be different, and I would rebel. In a word, that I would be better. I can't possibly know for sure, nor can I pretend to understand the complexities of survival, battles between loyalty and safety, or the not-so-subtle influence my government might have had on me. That being said, I am deeply honored to have Guido in my bloodline, and I hope that I would have done the same.

What would you take into hiding?
This thought occurred to me as Anne was grabbing, somewhat willy-nilly, items to take into hiding. Here's a list of what she took:

- Diary
- Hair curlers
- Handkerchiefs
- Schoolbooks
- A comb
- Old letters

She had to leave behind her cat, Moortje (her neighbors took care of it) which made me very sad. I think this is what my list would look like:

- Suzy (my chubby calico)
- A small collection of excellent books (likely I would struggle to decide, so whatever I grabbed from the shelves first)
- A journal
- A hairbrush
- Photos/letters/small keepsakes
- My cello (if sound is ever allowed in hiding. So TBD.)

What's on your list? If I can't take my cat, I don't think I want to go into hiding. Although Suzy is so vocal that she would almost definitely get everyone found. Must consider.

When Anne reviews her gathered things, she realizes she has not brought very much to wear, and says this:
  • "I'm not sorry, memories mean more to me than dresses." I love this line.
Tick, tock, tick tock...
  • Daddy, Mummy, and Margot can't get used to the sound of the Westertoren clock yet, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. I can. I loved it from the start, and especially in the night it's like a faithful friend.
I loved this because it makes me think of the grandmother clock my mother has in her living room. Sometimes it is a faithful friend on the quarter hour, sometimes it is mildly insanity-inducing, so I think I sit squarely between Anne and the rest of her fam on this point. ;0)

Empathy moments
As with Shukhov, there were several moments in reading this work or after reading it where I was struck by a very tangible moment of empathy. Here are a few examples:
  • We have forbidden Margot to cough at night, although she has a bad cold, and make her swallow large doses of codeine. I have been sick for several weeks this winter, but even when I sat up in bad and couldn't sleep for coughing, I thought of Margot and realized that at the very least, I could cough as loudly as I liked without fear of consequence.
  • We have eaten so many kidney beans and haricot beans that I can't bear the sight of them any more. I try to remember when I am bored with all the food in my house that I am lucky to have such incredible variety. Anne also talks about 'food cycles', or periods when they can only eat one dish or kind of vegetable (endive, spinach, sauerkraut), and I look down at my plate of the same leftovers from the day before and think, this is Not, in fact, so bad. It is not a week of sauerkraut.
  • Fleas/Mouschi - I've mentioned before that I often go into books thinking I will not have direct things in common with the protagonist, whether it's because they look different from me, they lived in a different century, or they have a different home country. I continue to be surprised in this area, which I think is one of the most profoundly magical aspects of reading. I learned that my cat, Suzy, had a rather nasty case of fleas, for complicated reasons (considering she is an indoor cat and I am a very neat person), as I was reading this book. After spending the day aggressively attempting to rid both Suzy and my apartment of fleas, I settled in to read more about the annex, and they were immediately overrun by fleas from Mouschi, the cat which Peter Van Daan brought into hiding. Mouschi eats the mice and rats that also live in the annex, so he is not such a bad companion, but I once again had a moment of gratitude and empathy in realizing that I was lucky enough to have access to all the things I wanted to treat the fleas, and unlike the members of the Secret Annex, was not semi-permanently embedded with the tiny nibblers.
 How are you holding up, dear readers? 

I know this is a lengthy post, but Anne deserves it. 

Here is a ridiculous cat picture to give you a little mental respite. 

Onwards to a section I have more recently designed...

Referents and Reverberations
(A section where I mention other books it reminded me of, whether they came before or after, and share quotes that resonate)

Harry Potter Series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling
  • This quote from the secret annex: It is really true that as the news from outside gets worse, so the radio with its miraculous voice helps us to keep up our morale and to say again, 'Chins up, stick it out, better times will come!'
Reminded me of this quote from the closing of Potterwatch transmissions, the secret radio station in the HPs:
  • Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.
The Bell Jar (1963) by Sylvia Plath

This line about Anne's burgeoning courtship with Peter in the annex, said by VanDaan and Dussel:
  • Is it suitable for young gentlemen to receive young girls in semidarkness?
Reminded me of this moment with Esther:
  • "When Constantin asked if I would like to come up to his apartment to hear some balalaika records I smiled to myself. My mother had always told me never under any circumstances to go with a man to a man's rooms after an evening out, it could mean only the one thing. 'I am very fond of balalaika music,' I said." heh heh heh - I think Anne and Esther would have been friends.
Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  • The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature, and God. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles. This comment from Anne reminded me of another Anne with an E.
  • Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I'd look up into the sky - up - up - up - into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer.
Lord of the Rings Trilogy (1954-1955) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I'm a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage... If God lets me live, I shall attain more than Mummy has ever done, I shall not remain insignificant, I shall work in the world and for mankind! And now I know that first and foremost I shall require courage and cheerfulness! These lines from Anne reminded me of a certain hobbit.
  • Frodo asks an elf this, before setting out on his quest: But where shall I find courage? That is what I chiefly need. And the elf says, simply, "Courage is found in unlikely places. Be of good hope! Sleep now! Anne was gone from this world before Frodo came to join us, but I like to think they could have found courage in each other.
I was amused to note both the things that made Anne seem mature beyond her years and the ways in which she was a fairly classic teenager. Here are the lists I compiled:

Ways in which Anne is a classic teenager
- Interest in boys/dating:
I told them how Peter often strokes my cheek and that I wished he wouldn't as I don't like being pawed by boys. lololololol. I love this.
- Family issues:
Honestly, you needn't think it's easy to be the 'badly brought-up' central figure of a hypercritical family in hiding. I love that she is so self-aware but also finds humor in the bizarrerie of this temporal moment.
- Comparisons to sibling (something I am often guilty of, as the youngest of 3 sisters):
I might tell you I don't want to be in the least like Margot. She is much too soft and passive for my liking, and allows everyone to talk her around, and gives in about everything. I want to be a stronger character!
- Just wants to have fun:
I sometimes ask myself, 'Would anyone, either Jew or non-Jew, understand this about me, that I am simply a young girl badly in need of some rollicking fun?'
- Crushing on Peter:
How can he, who loves peace and quiet, have any liking for all my bustle and din? Can he possibly be the first and only one to have looked through my concrete armor?
When you remember Anne's life is not that of a classic teenager:
  • I can't tell you how oppressive it is never to be able to go outdoors, also I'm very afraid that we shall be discovered and be shot.
  • If ever we come to the extremity of fleeing from here, the street would be just as dangerous as an air raid.
  • I swallow Valerian pills every day against worry and depression, but it doesn't prevent me from being even more miserable the next day. A good hearty laugh would help more than ten Valerian pills, but we've almost forgotten how to laugh.
  • I wander from one room to another, downstairs and up again, feeling like a songbird whose wings have been clipped and who is hurling himself in utter darkness against the bars of his cage.
  • I simply can't imagine that the world will ever be normal for us again. I do talk about 'after the war', but then it is only a castle in the air, something that will never really happen.
  • We are quite as used to the idea of going into hiding, or 'underground,' as in bygone days one was used to Daddy's bedroom slippers warming in front of the fire.
  • I have now reached the stage that I don't care much whether I live or die.
I also made a list of ways in which Anne is amazingly 'real' and funny.

Funny real things about Anne
- Complicated relationship with her mother - I liked that she was so honest here. I have a great relationship with my mother, but it was interesting to peer so intimately into Anne's interpersonal relationships and see what worked for her and what didn't, setting war and bigotry to the side.
- Chamber pot talk - Anne is by no means indelicate, but she finds some humor in the discussions of difficult subjects, like dealing with the issues of the toilet in the secret annex. 
- She really wants to get her period -"I'm so longing to have it too; it seems so important." Admittedly, I thought Anne was a little crazy in this desire. I certainly can't remember wanting to get mine, but I guess we'll agree to disagree here ;)
- Sense of humor - Anne's wisecracks about dieting: "Whoever wants to follow a slimming course should stay in the "Secret Annexe"!
- Sharing a room with Dussel - Anne does not get to have her own space in the annex, as she shares her room first with her sister Margot, then later with Dussel the dentist. Here's my favorite of her descriptions of his sleep habits:
First, I hear a sound like a fish gasping for breath, this is repeated nine or ten times, then with much ado and interchanged with little smacking sounds, the lips are moistened, followed by a lengthy twisting and turning in bed and rearranging of pillows.
- Outspoken advocate for young people: 
Even if people are still every young, they shouldn't be prevented from saying what they think.
I've done rather a lot of blathering, so just a few final things. This list is compiled and shared with Dussel the Dentist upon his arrival, and I simply had to share it. The dark humor of it, paired with its quotidian quality, made me laugh and cringe and sigh all at once.

Special institution as temporary residence for Jews and suchlike. 
Open all the year round. Beautiful, quiet, free from woodland surroundings, in the heart of Amsterdam. Can be reached by trams 13 and 17, also by car or bicycle. In special cases also on foot, if the Germans prevent the use of transport.
Board and lodging: Free. 
Special fat-free diet. 
Running water in the bathroom (alas, no bath) and down various inside and outside walls. 
Ample storage room for all types of goods. 
Own radio center, direct communication with London, New York, Tel Aviv, and numerous other stations. This appliance is only for residents' use after six o'clock in the evening. No stations are forbidden, on the understanding that German stations are only listened to in special cases, such as classical music and the like. 
Rest hours: 10 o'clock in the evening until 7:30 in the morning. 10:15 on Sundays. Residents may rest during the day, conditions permitting, as the directors indicate. For reasons of public security rest hours must be strictly observed!! 
Holidays (outside the home): postponed indefinitely. 
Use of language: Speak softly at all times, by order! All civilized languages are permitted, therefore no German! 
Lessons: One written shorthand lesson per week. English, French, Mathematics, and History at all times. 
Small Pets - Special Department (permit is necessary): Good treatment available (vermin excepted). 
Mealtimes: breakfast, every day except Sundays and Bank Holidays, 9 A.M. Sundays and Bank Holidays, 11:30 A.M. approximately. 
Lunch: (not very big): 1:15 P.M. to 1:45 P.M. 
Dinner: cold and/or hot: no fixed time (depending on the news broadcast). 
Duties: Residents must always be ready to help with office work. 
Baths: The washtub is available for all residents from 9 A.M. on Sundays. The W.C., kitchen, private office, or main office, whichever preferred, are available. 
Alcoholic Beverages: only with doctor's prescription.
Words and Phrases That were New to Me
pogrom - an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe

shank's mare - using one's own legs for walking (idiomatic, apparently. For more on the origin of this phrase, go here. I particularly like the part about the velocipede being a 'toy' that will never take the place of good old shank's mare. ;))

furbelow - a gathered strip or pleated border of a skirt or petticoat (LOLOL. Apparently also the last name of a friend of George Jetson (Bertie Furbelow, pictured right. adorbsable.)

scudding - moving fast in a straight line because or as if driven by the wind (often in reference to clouds)

Other lines in the running for title of this entry:
  • I expect you will be interested to hear what it feels like to 'disappear'; well, all I can say is that I don't know myself yet.
  • If I just think of how we live here, I usually come to the conclusion that it is a paradise compared with how other Jews who are not in hiding must be living.
  • Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people?
  • Ordinary people simply don't know what books mean to us, shut up here. 
  • When will we be granted the privilege of smelling fresh air?
  • I have often been downcast, but never in despair; I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time. 
  • I hope one thing only, and that is that this hatred of the Jews will be a passing thing.
I loved reading this book because it reminded me that memoirists are not saints; they are simply people who choose to let us share their worldview for a while. Despite the darkness with which she was presented, and the many ups and downs of living in hiding, Anne still maintained a positive outlook: 
And what would be the object of making our 'Secret Annexe' into a 'Secret Annexe of Gloom'? If I want to laugh about something, should I stop myself quickly and feel ashamed that I am cheerful? Ought I then to cry the whole day long? No, that I can't do. Besides, in time this gloom will wear off.
In time, the gloom of sharing Anne's world and the things the world did to her will wear off. It is beginning to wear off, but I still catch myself feeling guilty when I find joy and cheer in the world, reminding myself not to forget the Annes of the past and the present. Then there is this advice:
I've found that there is always some beauty left - in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you. And whoever is happy will make others happy too.
And in case you had the same fatalistic thought I did several times, knowing how the story ended - why go through all of the years in hiding, all the terror and the fear and the risk, if they were only to be thwarted and murdered in the end? There's this, too:
Again and again I ask myself, would it not have been better for us all if we had not gone into hiding, and if we were dead now and not going through all this misery. But we all recoil from these thoughts too, for we still love life; we haven't yet forgotten the voice of nature, we still hope, hope about everything.
If Anne was still able to hope in hiding, and even if that hope was futile, then I will hope, too, that we may find our way out of this collective darkness, and stop doing hateful things to each other. To close, here is Anne's most famous quote, in full context:
It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.
Anne, I cannot give you these gifts in our world, but I give them to you in the world of fiction: Dutch citizenship, which you said you wanted after the war; unlimited trips to the public library, a treasure you only dreamed of; and the opportunity to travel the world and see so much more than the Secret Annex and that corner of Amsterdam. 

Readers, may you heed the approaching thunder, imagine an end to the cruelty of humans, find compassion and hope in yourself and in others, and be a part of the force that guides us away from the wilderness and into peace and tranquility. If Anne can imagine it and believe it, we can, too.

Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.

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. 

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."
  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."
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.