Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Alienated America

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, by Timothy P. Carney

After the 2016 election, we all saw a lot of people trying to figure out just how and why Trump won.  There's been a lot of blame going around, but I've never really seen an explanation that I thought really hit the nail on the head, until I ran into this book.  Carney focused in on the original, core Trump fan base -- not the people who eventually voted for him because he was the Republican nominee, but the people who really cottoned on to his campaign from the beginning -- and looked for the common denominator.

Carney's thesis was that certain segments of the population really resonated with Trump's declaration that the American dream is dead.  A lot of people didn't agree with that at all, but that's because this is all geographically based.  There are plenty of places in the US where the American dream is dead, and those are the places that produced Trump's core.

Carney describes a cycle that includes three major ingredients: jobs, families, and community support.  If you have all three, the result is a thriving community.  Start losing them, and you get a downward spiral in which unsupported families fall apart or cannot form, which produces people who aren't well-suited for working, and community breaks.

A major thing I took from this is that you can't have just a person/household and a state.  People need middle-size institutions -- local organizations that they contribute to and that provide support and meaning.  These things can, and should, come in a wide variety of flavors: neighborhood sporting groups, the PTA, the bird-watching association, the Lions or Rotary, the quilt guild and the library and the local churches.  But churches turn out to be the really big one.  They've always been important in American civil life, and when churches close, there is not a lot to replace them and it is a real loss, especially to the lower-income people who need community most.

I suppose that this is because churches are some of the very few institutions that bring a very wide variety of people together and then explicitly expect them to support and help each other and the wider community.  My church congregation is mostly made up of people who are not particularly like me.  There are all ages and income levels and backgrounds, and we are organized to produce community almost automatically, by teaching each other's kids, by paying attention to needs, by being expected to show up and do certain things on a regular basis.

Church makes it easy to do service work on both a large scale and one-on-one.  This has always been true -- for example, in my congregation, nobody had to think up the idea of getting the teens to feed the homeless, it just happens that our turn comes around, and the kids are expected to show up and do it.  After the Camp Fire, though, I saw it work on an enormous scale.  Everybody in town wanted to do something, and they did -- but it was easy to find things to do through the churches.  There was a website at mine that let people sign up to host families and say whether they could deal with pets/wheelchairs/babies/etc. so people were matched up easily.  Trucks of toys arrived and the kids were told to organize them into a giant Christmas store (the usual police-sponsored Toys for Tots, only huge).  Most teens would have liked to do something like that, but a lot might not have the opportunity as easily.  Trucks of furniture showed up and the call would go out to come unload.  At the same time, if one elderly lady with asthma was suffering from the smoke, a call would go out and somebody would come up with an air filtering machine, take it over there, and get her taken care of. 

A bunch of teens organizing a zillion toys for kids who lost their homes
I don't know of a secular equivalent of this, but we need to figure one out.  Church is becoming less common, but those community needs are still there.  The dissolution of community life appears to be driving a lot of our problems.  I talked about this with my oldest, who is totally uninterested in church but retains a lot of that community training, and who was very interested in the question because it's very visible.

Anyway, there was a lot more to this book -- it's quite long and contains a lot of fascinating analysis, both of communities that are disintegrating, and of ones that are thriving, plus a lot more. 

The same three things we saw with the erosion of the family we see with the erosion of community: it is unequally distributed, it is concentrated in the working class, and it is geographically discrete to the point that we can see it on a map. 

Half the problems we think of as problems of poverty are problems of eroded civil society.  half the problems we think of as problems of modernity are really problems of eroded civil society. (147)  [I recently saw another book making this point: Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg.  The first chapter is about libraries!]

When central government grows past a certain point, civil society retreats. (157)

This is the tendency of a large central state: when you strengthen the vertical bonds between the state and the individual, you tend to weaken the horizontal bonds between individuals.  What's left is a whole that by some measures is more cohesive, but individuals who are individually all less connected to one another. (197)

...we couldn't tell the story of Trump without discussing community.  They story of how we got Trump is the story of the collapse of community, which is also the story behind out opioid plague, our labor-force dropouts, our retreat from marriage, and our growing inequality. (205)

Just as Occupy Wall Street turned to the central state for relief from alienation and disenfranchisement, Trumpism offered a strongman to restore things to their proper order.  The contradiction should be obvious, though.
The disenfranchisement Americans have felt is not really a matter of the federal government being taken away from the people -- Washington was always too distant, always too large for any individual or family to have meaningful sway.  Modern disenfranchisement was really the disappearance and erosion of the layers of society where an individual and a family can make a difference. 
But once that middle layer of society is gone for long enough, many people -- especially those most effected by its absence -- can no longer imagine it or see its value.  Instead, knowing in their hears that they are political animals made to shape the world around them, they look to the most visible level of politics (because it's the one that is still there and not fading) and imagine that it's at that level that they're supposed to live their potential as political animals. (214)

Local institutions of civil society allow for more pluralism, more voice, and more human-level politics.  Centralized politics raise the stakes and make the ordinary man feel powerless. (216)
I'm officially declaring this one to be a Book Everyone Should Read.  Whether you do or not, though, think about what you are doing in your community, and whether there is more you could do in some way that fits you.

The whole time I was reading Carney commenting on the community benefits churches bring, the same line kept repeating in my head, so here it is:

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

20 Books of Summer

Hooray, it's that time again, when we start planning our summer reading and Cathy posts her #20booksofsummer challenge!

Cathy says:
Can I keep up my winning streak and complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge this year?
From 3 June until 3 September I will be attempting to read my 20 Books of Summer. Why not join in with your own 20 (or 10, or 15!), read along with some of the books or just cheer me on as I try and get that dreaded 746 down by another 20 in just 3 months.
So I spent a happy evening checking out my TBR and library shelves, and here is the result.

 It was very difficult to pick 20 books and I wound up with 22, telling myself that two are alternates in case I hate some.  I was quite tempted to choose 20 books from different countries for my Reading All Around the World project, but I decided that I wanted a variety.  I wound up with 4 Around the World titles (that is, for countries I haven't hit yet), 12 Classics Club books, 6 from my TBR (3 from Adam's list and 3 random), 3 chosen for WIT in August, and a few just for fun because I want them.  I have plenty more if I run out.
  1. The Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher (CC)
  2. Four Birds of Noah's Ark, by Thomas Dekker (CC)
  3. Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer (WIT)
  4. Purge, by Sofi Oksanen (RAAtW, TBR, WIT)
  5. Paradise of the Blind, by by Duong Thu Huong (CC, RAAtW, WIT)
  6. The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (RAAtW)
  7. The Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Amos Tutuola (CC, RAAtW)
  8. The Inland Sea, by Donald Richie
  9. Arthurian Romances, Tales, and Lyric Poetry by Hartmann von Aue (CC)
  10. Secondhand Time, by Svetlana Alexievich (CC)
  11. A House Full of Females, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (TBR)
  12. Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch
  13. The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett (CC, TBR)
  14. The Claverings, by Anthony Trollope (CC, TBR)
  15. The Wanderer (Anglo-Saxon bits and bobs) (CC)
  16. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut (CC, TBR)
  17. The Plague, by Albert Camus (CC)
  18. The Lais of Marie de France (CC)
  19. Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier (TBR)
  20. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by Anderson and Yelchin
  21. The Pendulum, by Julie Lindahl
  22. Ganga, by Julian Hollick (TBR)
I sure hope I'll have more time for reading this summer than I have had lately!  There are so many fascinating books out there...and I find more at work all the time.  Right now, my brain is telling me to "stock up for summer" despite the piles of books all over the place.  I tried to resist but it didn't work very well.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life

Drawn From Memory and Drawn From Life, by E. M. Shepard

Last Christmas, I had utterly failed to find a good gift for my mom and had fallen back on nice socks.  We all like socks, but still.  And on December 23, Lory posted about her new book -- a memoir by E. H. Shepard, who illustrated Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.  This was clearly the ideal gift!  It didn't arrive for weeks, but eventually my mom got a really good present, and then I borrowed it too.  Naturally!

Drawn from Memory is the story of Shepard's early childhood until the age of 8, and it is utterly charming.  He was a the child of a fairly ordinary middle-class Victorian family in London, albeit one with theatrical and artistic connections.  It was 1887, and life was very exciting, what with horses and cabs, ships in the seas, and a Jubilee for the Queen.  Shepard just shares a succession of memories of ordinary Victorian life, from childhood illnesses to exciting moments such as a neighborhood fire or a trip to the pantomime.  Such as:

I remembered very well my first introduction to sea-bathing. Father and Mother had been in for a dip and had taken Ethel with them. Cyril and I were handed over to the tender mercies of the Bathing Woman. This formidable female was dressed in a serge bathing dress and a straw bonnet.  She had red and brawny arms and her skin looked as if it were covered with barnacles. As she spent most of her life in the water, this may even have been the case. Her method was simple: the more difficult subjects, like my brother and myself, were tucked under her arms, where, our tender skin suffering acutely from contact with the rough serge, we were carried out to sea. The protesting body was then ducked, not once but several times, according to how the victim took it. The more he yelled, the more the duckings, until, nearly asphyxiated, he was reduced to silence. The torturer, meanwhile, in what was supposed to be a soothing voice, repeated, 'Dippy go under, dear!'  with each immersion, though her final remark to me did not sound like that. It took a lot to reduce me to silence and I was handed back to my parents with the comment: 'Well, that's the last I want to see of 'im!'
When Shepard was ten, his mother became ill and died, which was an enormous shock and loss to them all.  Thus he begins his second memoir at that point, when his life was shattered.  He and his siblings went to live with the aunts for a while.  School also began around then and was quite horrible for a while.  There were, however, many better moments as well, and as young Ernest had always been talented at drawing, he started to attend art classes.  This memoir goes all the way up through art school, his engagement with his wife Florence (Pie), who was a talented painter, and the beginning of their married life.

Both volumes, as you'd expect, are liberally sprinkled with lovely little illustrations.   They're a joy to read and I'd highly recommend them to anyone interested in Victorian life or, as we might say, the lives of great illustrators.  Shepard's work is so well known -- almost anyone would recognize the drawings of Winnie the Pooh -- and this might be a nice selection for any Pooh or Wind in the Willows fan.

"simply messing about in boats"

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Born a Crime

I feel like it's been a really long time since I wrote any posts, but I guess it hasn't been all that long really.  A lot has happened, is all.  I went on a trip!  I visited one of my best friends, who now lives in Utah, and we went to a women's conference at BYU.  I spent a leisurely hour touring the BYU main library, and now I need to live there.  Otherwise, I've mostly been working a lot -- just a week and a bit left to go! -- hanging out with the family, and trying to get sort of caught up with the house in spare moments (a bootless effort, I fear).  Two very busy weekends in a row have meant no time for Howling Frog and now I have a large pile of books!  One of which is...

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah

You've probably seen this book everywhere; I know I have.  I know who Trevor Noah is, but I've seen almost nothing of what he's done, since I hardly watch any TV.  That does not matter, though, because this memoir is not at all about becoming a big star in comedy.  It's about growing up in South Africa, being born under apartheid and living through the post-apartheid years.  And it's especially about Noah's mother, who is about as dauntless and brave a person as you could hope to find.

Noah, with a Swiss father and a Xhosa mother, was literally 'born a crime' because apartheid was still in full force and cross-racial dating or marriage was punishable by prison time.   As you all know, the races were strictly divided into black, colored, and white -- and little Trevor looked colored but was not, which meant that he learned to navigate a lot of different groups and speak several languages, because he figured out that if he could speak to people as a member of the group, he was accepted as one. 

He was also, evidently, about the naughtiest kid ever born -- smart and undeterred by painful experience ("I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new"). 

This memoir consists largely of three ingredients: his mom's amazing bravery, insightful descriptions of how South African society worked, and his own hair-raising adventures.  Of course, Noah manages to turn events that must have been quite terrifying into comedic episodes that make you laugh -- without taking away the seriousness of what happened.  It's a very interesting read, and deserves the attention it's been getting.

Friday, May 3, 2019


 Belonging: A German Reckons With History and Home, by Nora Krug

This showed up on the new books cart at work and I couldn't resist.  That happens a lot, and it's becoming a problem, because I can't read as fast as I can take books I'm trying to only take the books that I don't have on a list.   It probably isn't helping much, but maybe I can read a lot over the summer.  (I say that every summer and it never works.)  Anyway, this was a graphic novel of sorts, and therefore wouldn't take long...

It's actually more like a scrapbook, collage, and diary.  Nora Krug grew up in Germany, and must be just about exactly my age.  This the record of her struggle with being German in the wake of the 20th century; growing up as a child with this sense of collective shame and guilt, while also not quite understanding what actually happened, and having these blank spaces where family members might have been.  The questions: what did her grandparents actually do...or not do?  How did they feel?  How do you develop a sense of heimat, of your home space, or is that not possible?

As an adult, Krug moved to New York City, married a Jewish guy, and continued to wrestle with her family history  -- her lack of knowledge of it.  This is the record of her search for information, interspersed with memories of childhood, favorite German things (often familiar to me too), and historical items picked up at flea markets.  It's entirely absorbing.

Krug keeps her focus right on World War II, and not a lot else.  There is almost nothing about the split between East and West Germany, though she spent her childhood in it.  There is nothing about reunification, which must have happened when she was about 15 or 16.  This is excellent for the memoir, but I would have been interested.

A really good read.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Zelmenyaners

The Zelmenyaners, by Moyshe Kulbak

A couple of years ago, I read Outwitting History, about saving Yiddish literature from the dumpster of history.  IT was one of my favorite books of the year, and it put some Yiddish titles on my wishlist.  This was one of them, and I finally picked it up!

The Zelmenyaners appeared in a serial format in a Yiddish monthly magazine called Shtern (the Star), published in the Soviet Union.  It was actually two series; the first one ran in 1929 - 1930, and the second 1933 - 1935.  It became a comic family saga, about a Jewish family in Minsk.

None of the Zelmanyaners are actually named that.  Their father, Reb Zelmele, has been dead for a while now, but it's still his courtyard, with his descendants all living around in a big house, and little houses, and stables.  Bubbe Bashe is their matriarch, and she's so old she's like a little hen.  The four sons now have children and grandchildren, and so there are Zelmenyaners all over the place, all a bit alike.  And this is their story, which goes on as the USSR gets more powerful, and it shoves even those Zelmenyaners around.

The first series of stories is funnier than the second, but it's all interesting and enjoyable.  My favorite was probably Uncle Itshe, because
Apart from his family traits, Uncle Itshe has one all his own.  He sneezes like an explosion.  Once a sneeze of his caused a neighbor to faint. 
In the days of the Civil War, Uncle Itshe's sneezing was unnerving....
Me too, Uncle Itshe.  Me too.  Also he's a tailor, so he sews and sneezes, just like me.  Much later on, he has to give up being an independent and go to sew in a factory -- who ever heard of a factory of tailors?

There are all sorts of stories in this satirical story of Jewish Soviet life.  Great stuff, I wish it was better known.  Hooray for the Yiddish Book Center, and the folks who saved these books!

The cover has words in Russian and Hebrew.  I can't read the Hebrew, but the Russian says народная, people.  As in, those are the people's tractors!  If you can read the Hebrew, please comment and tell me what it says.

Monday, April 29, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words -- Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Korede is the older, plain sister who works hard at her job as a nurse.  Ayoola is the younger and stunningly beautiful younger sister who always gets what she wants and has men falling at her feet.  Ayoola also has a worrying habit; every so often she needs Korede to help her clean up and hide the body of a boyfriend.  The first couple of times, it was easy to believe it was self-defense, but it's getting harder for Korede to believe in Ayoola's innocence.  And now Tade, the kind doctor Korede daydreams about, is interested in Ayoola.

This is a gripping story!  It's a pretty fast read, but it's not a simple story at all.  In the end, it's pretty disturbing.  A good, suspenseful novel.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Spy Runner

Spy Runner, by Eugene Yelchin

I like Eugene Yelchin, writer of middle-grade fiction.  Some years ago I read the Newbery Honor book, Breaking Stalin's Nose, which is great.  And I have a nice new copy of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge on my TBR shelf; it's co-authored and illustrated by Yelchin.  So when my mom handed me his new novel, I was happy.

Jake is 12, and living right next to an Air Force base, he knows that being a good American is important.  His dad has been missing for 12 years, since the end of World War II, and Jake is pretty sure the Russians have him imprisoned.  He knows all about Communists from his favorite spy comics, so when his mom welcomes a Russian boarder into their home, Jake goes on high alert.  He just knows that Mr. Shubin is a spy.  But pretty soon his classmates are calling him a Communist, and there's this car following him around, and his best friend's dad is acting really weird.  Jake just has to figure out what's going on.

There is a lot in this story!  Jake and his friends don't really know what the Cold War is about, but they're right in the middle of it.  There's some McCarthyism going on, and there's real spying too, and Mr. Shubin is definitely not who he claims to be.

On the other hand, I was kind of annoyed at Jake's mom, who never seems to stop and listen for a minute.

Action-packed, but you'll cry.  A great middle-grade story that is kind of unusual.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Possessed

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

This was such a fun book -- at least, if you like Russian literature, or wry stories about oddball academics, or information about Uzbekistan.  I like all of those things.

Elif Batuman writes a sort of memoirish thing about her time in grad school -- some chapters were originally articles, so it's not always a smooth narrative, but it sure is fun.  Instead of writing a novel, she ends up at Stanford studying Russian literature. And then she goes to a conference on Tolstoy, right at Tolstoy's estate!  Eccentric academics abound, Batuman formulates a theory that Tolstoy was murdered, and fun is had by all.  It's finished off by a group dinner so strange and uncomfortable that a faculty member despairingly groans  "It was a dinner from Dostoevsky, that's all."

There is some quite fascinating stuff about Isaac Babel, a library display, King Kong, and Soviet propaganda posters.  I bet you didn't know that King Kong has a connection to Isaac Babel!  I sure didn't.

Much of the book is not about Russian literature, or Russia, at all.  Quite a large chunk is devoted to an intensive language-study stay in Uzbekistan, and the very interesting people there, and Old Uzbek literature. ("Dilorom and I were studying the lesser Old Uzbek scholar-poets.  Most of them were either madmen or saints.")

Then there is some really lunatic stuff about Peter the Great's niece, Anna Ioannovna.  Wow.

Favorite bits:
     “While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?  On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that the Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov's "specifically Jewish alienation."
     "Right," I finally said.  "As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."
     He nodded: "So you see the problem."

...I [was] ambiguously positioned between Turkey and the exasperating twentieth-century discourse of "shoestring travel": the quest for an idyll where, for three U.S. dollars, Mustafa would serve you a home-cooked meal and tell you about his hair collection.  The worst part of this discourse was its specious left-wing rhetoric, as if it were a form of "sticking it to the man" to reject a chain motel in favor of a cold-water pension completely filled with owls.

[on her surprise at finding that Uzbek actually is related to Turkish, as an eccentric uncle had always asserted] my experience, Turkish people thought that every language was close to our Turkish language.  Many times I had been told that Hungarian was related to Turkish, that the Hungarians and Turks descended from the same Altaic peoples, that Attila the Hun was Turkish, and so on.  When I went to Hungary, however, I discovered that Hungarians do not share these beliefs at all.  "Of course we have some Turkish words in our language," they would say.  "For example, handcuffs.  But that's because you occupied our country for four hundred years."
I enjoyed this one a lot; it's just so much fun.  You don't even have to be terribly interested in Russian literature, just willing to put up with a lot of mentions of Pushkin.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Spin number is...


That's a number I don't think we've had before.

When I first looked at my list to see what 19 was, I read Banana Yoshimoto's Amrita.  So I checked it out of the library and read some pages.  So far so good.

This morning I looked again at my list, and behold, Amrita was #18!  I'm actually supposed to read Walter de la Mare's short stories -- the first volume, anyway.  It's huge.  We'll see how far I get -- it's over 500 pages long!  Amrita looked a lot more doable.