3

Black Like Me

I think the first time I heard about John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me was on twitter. It kind of blows my mind that I reached the ripe old age of 31 before ever hearing of this book.

But now I’ve not only heard of it, I’ve read it.

A friend of mine commented on my Goodreads “review” (I only ever star on Goodreads) that this book sounds like a “racist mess.” I completely understand how she might look at it this way. At times, reading the book, I cringed. But I think Griffin’s intention was good and reading the Afterword, understanding how he put his money where his mouth was after the fact to agitate for Civil Rights, I’m willing to give him a pass.

black like me

If you’re not already familiar with Black Like Me, it’s the diary of a white man who, in 1959 decides to take medication that will darken his skin and cross into the Deep South to find out what life was like for a Black man. Before he undergoes the transformation, he writes about why he’s decided to do this:

How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth? Though we lived side by side throughout the South, communication between the two races had simply ceased to exist. Neither really knew what went on with those of the other race. The Southern Negro will not tell a white man the truth. He long ago learned that if he speaks a truth unpleasing to the white, the white will make life miserable for him.

Once Griffin had made the decision, he leaves his life and family and crosses into the Deep South as a Black man. And it becomes evident very quickly how different life is on the other side. He very quickly realizes how he has to modify his behaviour, language and clothing in order to stay safe.

As Griffin works his way ever deeper, from Louisiana to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, he meets Black men and women with whom he feels a connection, who smile at him and help him when he needs it, like when he’s stranded on a highway and a family lets him stay the night with them, even though there is only room for him on the floor. In talking to those he meets, he comes to see how difficult it is for Black men and women to get a fair shake in a country that is still intent on seeing only the colour of their skin.

It is an indictment of the times that it took a white man standing up to say “hey this is an issue” but if you stop and actually think about it, it’s not so very different today. I watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO the other day and there’s a scene where Oprah asks a white woman a question and the white woman looks at Oprah’s white companion to answer, as if Oprah isn’t standing right there. This is still an issue.

But for all the flaws in the experiment, Griffin’s book remains an interesting historical document. He wrote with respect and empathy about people that he wouldn’t otherwise have gotten to know because of the racist laws of the time. His experience, what he learned, served to change the direction of his life. And that’s worth something.

 

13

Lake Reads: Easter 2017

It’s been pretty quiet around here eh?

I’m going through another reading rough patch – I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on reading! It’s been really busy at work and we’re still house hunting (which is the most intense experience out here) so I don’t have much left for this space.

BUT.

That’s about to change because it’s Easter and you know what that means? I’m headed to my in-laws’ house and all that’s expected of me in the next few days is to read and have some drinks. Maybe also run to town for ice cream.

lake reads

I have been looking forward to this weekend for weeks and weeks, thinking about what books will come with me. I’ve changed my mind many times but in the end, these are the books that I’m taking with.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. You may recall that I wasn’t a massive fan of My Brilliant Friend. It took me more than a year to take a chance on the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name. Well, that one converted me. I fell for that book hard and I think it’s safe to say that I’m obsessed by the friendship between Lila and Elena. I can’t wait to get into the third book.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. This account of a white journalist going undercover as a black man in the Deep South in 1959 is more serious lake reading but it feels important and timely.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter. What can I say? I’ve been in a murder state of mind. I’ve been listening to as many episodes of the My Favorite Murder podcast as time will allow. Given my non-focus abilities recently, I need something to grip me. I was haunted by Slaughter’s Pretty Girls. I look forward to her scaring the crap out of me again. This book needs to be back at the library on Tuesday – someone is waiting for it!

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. When I saw this post from Amy @ Read a Latte I was intrigued. I mean, it’s serious if you read a book twice in a week. When I was next at the library, I saw this book sitting out and felt like it was meant to be. I like the idea of an office duel between competing assistants who hate each other right about now.

The Secrets You Keep by Kate White. I don’t want to brag but I know the guy who took the picture that they used for this cover. When he told me about it I looked the book up and it sounded interesting: what would you do if your new husband is keeping secrets from you, ones that are potentially dangerous? I pre-ordered it (something I NEVER do) and now I’m taking it to the lake.

The Edge of the Fall by Kate Williams. I read the first book in this promised trilogy (The Storms of War) quite a while ago. It was the story of a German-English family navigating society into the First World War and what it meant for their place in it. Kate Williams is an incredible biographer and she has taken equal care in crafting some solid historical fiction.

And that’s “it.” Three full days, 10 hours worth of car rides – I can do some serious reading damage this weekend. Promise that when I get back, I will actually post about some of it.

Happy Easter, friends!

27

The Most Difficult Book I’ve Ever Read

So far this year, I’ve been drawn to more serious subject matter. I’ve written about it here and here and here.

Today’s another one. The difference this time is that the book in question, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, shredded me. I don’t just mean that this book made me sad.

This book broke me.

I had to take breaks from this book. I was in tears, I was sobbing reading this book.

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This book, by Åsne Seierstad, started when the author was asked to write a piece about the massacre for Newsweek. Seierstad was used to writing about conflict in the Middle East, about war happening in far away places, but her home in Norway was always a peaceful refuge from her work. Now the conflict had bled into her home.

The result is a stunning portrait of what happened: in Anders Breivik’s life, in Norway over the past 40 years, in Oslo and on the island of Utoya on that summer day in 2011.

Seierstad doesn’t just look at the radicalization of Breivik – his wreck of a home life, days as a tagger in the city, and the eventual descent into hatred and delusion that saw him plant a bomb in the centre of Oslo before shooting a bunch of unarmed teenagers on a secluded island.

She also looks at the lives of those lost: Simon Saebo, a teenager from the north of Norway who had  a summer job at the cemetery and started a local youth branch of the Labour Party; Bano Rashid, whose family fled the war in Iraq, who was so intent on becoming a “proper” Norwegian and loved the traditions of her adopted country, and hoped to become a minister one day; Anders Kristiansen, another young man who thought one day he could be Prime Minister, who had asked his mom to weave him a blanket the colour of the summer sky. By the time the book gets to that day in July, you know these kids, their families, their hopes and dreams.

And this is why this book was so difficult to read – possibly the most difficult book I’ve ever read – these children had their whole lives ahead of them. Each of them was hard-working, clever, decent and they all had plans for working towards a better Norway, a better world. And some asshole, blinded by hatred, fueled by delusions of grandeur, took it upon himself to end their promising young lives.

Seierstad tells a complete story. The before, the after, the trial, how the families are coping; but she also includes about 60 some odd pages of the actual shooting. I wasn’t prepared for that. She looks at the response of the Norwegian authorities, how things maybe didn’t go as well as they could have. She is critical but you get the sense that everyone in Norway was just flabbergasted that anything like this could happen there. Altogether, this adds up to one gut-punch of a book.

I’ve thought about those kids often in the days since I read it; about their parents and siblings having to navigate the rest of their lives without them. Seierstad got approval from all the families of those whose children’s last moments are covered in the book – their families don’t want them to be forgotten. Reading this book seems like a good start in honouring their memories.

11

Another Day in the Death of America

I’ve been working hard on making some of my reading more meaningful. On choosing books that make me feel like I’m educating myself in a way that is necessary right now. So that I can’t just be an ignorant privileged white woman.

Thankfully, there are so very many books that can help me on my way.

Today we’re going to talk about Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives.

america

Younge is a British journalist who found himself living in the United States after falling in love while working there short term. He stayed, got married, worked, and had two children in his time in America. Younge is a black man and the longer he stayed, especially once he had black children, the more he became worried about the gun violence in his adopted country. As he got to know more Americans, as he came to consider himself as less of an onlooker and more of a participant in every day American life, gun violence became more personal.

So, in an effort to show how personal the epidemic is, he picked a day, any day, and reported on all the stories of children shot to death on that day.On an average day, seven children will be shot. On the day Younge picked, November 23, 2013, ten children aged nine to nineteen were killed by guns. Younge spent eighteen months travelling around, talking to the people who loved them, those who were there, the mothers, fathers, friends, cousins left shattered in the wake of such unnecessary loss.

The children he profiles were black, white, hispanic. They were students, athletes, little kids who played in the streets until the lights came on. They fell in doorways, at sleepovers, in their own homes, on street corners. Their lives ended in California, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas. They all left behind completely devastated families.

Gary Younge profiles these short lives with empathy and compassion. He speaks freely about how occasionally he messed up and didn’t approach grieving relatives with the space they needed to feel comfortable speaking with them. Over the course of the book, you can see Younge getting more and more involved in his subject matter.

This is a book about what happens when you don’t have gun control. Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible.

Another Day in the Death of America is an incredibly researched portrait of an epidemic that does not discriminate against its victims. I read most of it with my mouth open, horrified with the ease with which these young lives were wiped out. And I’m not sure really where it left me. Gary Younge and his family have since moved back to the UK.

One final note: this book has been optioned as a movie with David Oyelowo to star as Gary Younge.

17

Shonda Rhimes the person

You know how sometimes, you hear about books and you don’t read them, don’t read them, don’t read them, keep hearing about them, don’t read them until finally you do and wonder what took you so long?

That’s what happened with Shonda Rhimes’ The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person.

Shonda Rhimes needs no introduction. She is, of course, the genius woman we have to thank for Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice and How to Get Away With Murder. She is the powerhouse behind TGIT, an entire night of network television dedicated to her universe. Lainey Gossip and Duana Taha are big fans of hers and talk about her and The Year of Yes often on their podcast, Show Your Work.

(Have you listened? It’s dedicated to work within the celebrity ecosystem and is brilliant and endlessly fascinating)

I bought a copy of this book almost a year ago. I finally read it.

What took me so long??

year-of-yes

The Year of Yes is kind of like one of those “I did this thing for a year and this is what happened” books. Except it’s Shonda Rhimes and she simply started saying “yes” to things that she always said no to. Her sister mentioned, offhand one night, that Shonda never said yes to anything and it got her thinking and she decided that for a year, she would say yes: to speaking engagements, going on Kimmel, spending time with her kids, having difficult conversations, to compliments, to saying no.

A few things struck me about this lovely little memoir.

  1. Shonda’s writing style is so conversational. She pulls you in like you are having a conversation with her, like you are her friend and this is all casual over dinner or drinks. It’s an incredibly effective way of making you care about what she has to say right off the bat.
  2. It’s so honest. Shonda holds nothing back. She lets you in fully. The one time she keeps details somewhat private are when she is talking about someone she was in a relationship with, who she didn’t end up marrying. She deftly manages to convey her side of things without bring anyone else into it. She is honest about how much help she has at home, her struggles with her weight, her mental well-being in certain situations – she writes it all.
  3. Shonda Rhimes is responsible for so much of our cultural lexicon! Reading this book, it really struck me what a massive impact Shonda Rhimes has had on our cultural memories, the things we say and the television events we all remember.
  4. Her relationship with Cristina Yang is intense (in a good way). Shonda talks about how she’s extremely introverted and Cristina Yang was the vehicle she used to say a lot of the things she wanted to say before she was able to be the one actually saying them. It was really interesting to read about this relationship with a character she created and what it was like saying good bye when she left the show.
  5. That even though she is pretty well single-handedly responsible for diversifying TV, she hates the concept of diversity. She just doesn’t see what the big deal is about making her shows look like what the world actually looks like.

I’m so glad that I finally read this book. It was light, funny, and so enlightening. She talks so much about self care and what that looks like for her (something we all think about a little more these days) and I so appreciated getting to know Shonda Rhimes the person. I read this book in one sitting, I couldn’t stop. It’s rare to get to read a memoir that is so captivating and offers its reader so much at the same time.

It was a delight from start to finish.

7

Why I buy non-fiction

A couple of weeks ago, on a post about monthly library usage, Buried in Print left a comment about buying versus borrowing non-fiction that I’ve been pondering ever since.

The exchange ended with the question: Have you always bought more NF than fiction, or has it become a habit over time?

And I’ve been thinking about this ever since, about my relationship to non-fiction versus fiction, why I’m drawn to one over the other when I buy books, why it’s important to me to buy non-fiction but I almost never take it out from the library.

book-stack

A few times a year, I go through my collection and purge. Physical books obviously take up space and when you have as many as I do, it gets out of hand quickly. There are some books that I read that I just don’t love and I don’t mind giving them away to make space for some that I might fall for. And even though I donate books a couple of times a year, almost none of those books are ever non-fiction.

Still, I own a lot of books (I have forgone formal dining space in the apartment in favour of setting up a library). Once I started earning my own money, it became important to me to buy books. That has mostly remained true over time. I do go to the library fairly regularly, in an effort to keep the numbers of books I own down somewhat.

But given the choice to buy or borrow non-fiction? I will pretty well choose ‘buy’ every time. I impulsively buy non-fiction in a way that just doesn’t happen with fiction. Partly, this is because I have been haunted by non-fiction titles that I walked away from once only to spend months and years trying to find it again. So now? I just buy the book.

And partly, it’s because when I was a kid, I dreamed about one day having the kind of library that could be used as reference for school work. It seemed like an insane luxury not to have to troll the baby internet for knowledge, not have to physically go to the library. And that’s not to say that there were no books in my house – there were. Just not on the kinds of things I needed for my homework.

It’s important to me to buy non-fiction because I like being surrounded by history, politics, feminist voices, biographies and the kinds of books that are labelled as social science. I like being able to look something up when I want to, to look at pictures of things that happened a hundred years ago.

When I’ve not been able to afford to buy books, I’ve used the library a lot. And I always end up reading amazing non-fiction books that I then have to give back. And as is so often the case, those books haunt me as I realize that finding them to buy is no simple thing.

So buying non-fiction was a habit born of a childish desire to learn everything, to have that knowledge on hand when I needed it, for this introvert to be able to stay at home and have access to the information I need.

Of course, one could argue that the internet and smartphones have made this desire obsolete. But you all know that there is no way that I would ever trade my books for the internet.

Especially my non-fiction titles.

2

Portrait of a Husband

Back when I first read The Scent of Secrets, Jane Thynne’s series centred on a German movie star/spy, I expressed an interest in learning more about the Nazi wives.

Well, when I was at Powell’s last year, I found Magda Goebbels: The First Lady of the Third Reich by Hans-Otto Meissner. I didn’t even hesitate picking it up.

This book was published in German in 1978. Meissner begins the book by telling readers that although his own father, Dr. Otto Meissner was the head of the Reich Presidential Administration from 1919 until 1945, he and his father were both acquitted of wrongdoing during the de-Nazification tribunal in 1947.

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That’s part of what makes this book so compelling: the author knew his subject. They socialized together! Her friends felt comfortable telling him stories afterwards because they were all part of the same social circle.

This was always going to be an interesting book – Magda Goebbels was married to the man in charge of Nazi propaganda! She died with him at the very end, taking their six young children with them. The fact that the author knew Magda and her friends added something to this book that I wasn’t expecting.

However.

This also limited Meissner. I got the sense that parts of his portrait of Magda were softened, intending to make her more of a victim than a perpetrator. In speaking with some of her friends, he agreed to keep some names out of the book because they were still living and quite well known. In this way, Meissner reminds readers that he was on the inside, and we are not.

The biggest issue I had with this book though (and if you’ve kicked around here for a while, you won’t be surprised) was that for much of the book Meissner looks at Joseph Goebbels.

Look, obviously Joseph Goebbels was a big deal. But I didn’t pick up the book Magda Goebbels to read all about Joseph’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Like, is it so impossible for those who write biographies about women to just write about the women? Yes, sometimes their husband’s work or personality has bearing on what happens (and that’s certainly true here) but the focus should still always be on the women. Whole chapters of this book were dedicated to Joseph Goebbels and his education and how he became a Nazi. Overall, I still don’t feel like I know anything more about Magda.

In the end, Meissner scored some points with me for ending his book thus:

If there is a hell and its ruler incarnate, Goebbels would presumably have been greeted warmly as a kinsman. A place at the devil’s table must long since have been kept for the monster who so richly deserved it, right next to the Prince of Darkness himself.

I mean, damn. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a biography where the biographer inserts himself so fully into the book. It was an interesting experience and no doubt I would have enjoyed it so much more had I actually come to understand Magda Goebbels herself at all.

I’m still on the lookout for more books about Magda and the other Nazi wives…