Plague Journal: Day One

Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash
Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash

It’s been suggested that our journals will be primary sources for those studying this time period later on. I should probably be writing down my thoughts, then, because who knows what happens to websites like this one—in 100 years no one will be maintaining it. Where will it go? I don’t know, but I decided to try to document some of what is happening in the world, and perhaps I can figure out a way to preserve it some time down the road.

The last day of classes before spring break was March 6. Our head of school said to tell students to take anything they might need in order to study home with them in the event that they couldn’t return. Last weekend, the school decided to send our international students home, knowing they likely cannot return to the U. S., even if Covid-19 tapers off more quickly than experts think it will, and we are somehow able to return to school. The school also decided to conduct classes online. I don’t think we will be returning to school.

I have been trying to limit going anywhere. The last place I went besides the store was the dentist. That was only this Monday, but it feels like it was a lot longer ago. That morning, the dentist made the decision to close his office for the time being. I was lucky, I guess, to be able to get in and get my crown done before all of this because who knows how long I would need to wait otherwise. I had my annual physical last Friday. The doctor’s office seemed relatively calm. Not many people were in the waiting room, and I sat far away from everyone else.

Some things have been hard to get at the store: toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bleach. So far, soap seems to be available. I went to the store this morning to buy meals for a few days, and there was no chicken, ground beef, or eggs at the first place I went, so I went to another, and I found what I needed. I think it might be like that for a couple of weeks until people calm down. I am hoping our toilet paper will last until then, but I am not sure it’s an emergency. I felt lucky to be able to find paper towels today, and they were even my preferred brand. I am trying to look for cooking ideas that don’t involve using meat since it is apparently going to be harder to find in the short-term. I made French onion soup and served it with a crusty loaf of sourdough bread I made yesterday. Tonight is Detroit-style homemade pizza. I will need to look for some other ideas for things my family will not turn up their nose at.

It’s surreal. Two weeks ago, everything felt more or less normal, even though there was a sense of unease as we left for break. One week ago, I feel like my life changed. I can even trace the exact moment. I went to the drop-in center for an organization where I volunteer, and I halfway wondered if I should go, but I decided it was okay. At the end of the evening, the director said she had a text that indicated someone in another organization housed in the same building might have been exposed to Covid-19, and therefore, we might have been exposed. While I think the chances are very, very small that any of us were exposed, especially because the individual was not present, there was a palpable sense of fear. Even from the moment I came in that evening, the kids were walking up to me and saying they felt scared and had heard there would be no school the next day. So, quite literally, by about 10:00 P.M. Thursday, March 12, everything had turned upside-down.

Next week, we are going to be figuring out how to teach our classes online. I feel okay about this change for my own classes, but I am worried about the steep learning curve ahead for some of my colleagues. I would love to be able to be in the same space with my students, but I feel confident in my ability to engage with my students and do some quality work online. We are living in interesting times, and I can’t help but feel like this is the stillness before the storm.

Baking is Good for the Soul

I recently learned there is a scientific reason why baking makes me feel good. I started baking bread probably about two and a half years ago. I was always kind of intimidated by bread because it seemed fiddly and hard. Cookies? No problem, I can throw that together. Muffins? No big deal. Cakes? A little harder, and they’re not going to be pretty, but I can make one that tastes good just the same. I tried bread a few times, mostly using recipes out of my general cookbooks like the old standby, The Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. I think that was part of the problem. Baking bread well probably requires a special focus; I have learned so much more about doing it right from bread- or baking-focused cookbooks.

Sourdough
Sourdough Starter by Janus Sandsgaard
Used under Creative Commons Attribution License

I made my own sourdough starter in that week between Christmas and New Year’s Day of 2017, so it’s over two years old and still going strong. I’ve used it to make a few loaves of sourdough and some really fantastic waffles. Making a starter isn’t that hard. King Arthur has good instructions, and I used them to make my own, but there are other great instructions elsewhere. It’s not even that hard to keep it going. You can refrigerate and feed it once a week, but even if you let it slide for a while, you can generally rescue it.

This might seem strange, but baking bread makes me feel connected to the past. It’s like making soap, which I also do (though not in a good long while). It’s something I’m sure my ancestors had to do out of necessity. A nice round loaf of sourdough bread is probably something that anyone living 200 or 300 years ago would recognize.

I love everything about baking bread. I love the smell of the dough. I love bread dough’s elastic stretchiness. I love the science of bread—how leavening works, seemingly by magic. I love how it’s simple and complicated all at once.

I even love failing at it. I have been trying to make brioche, for example, and as of yet, I haven’t been able to get it right. The fat and sugar content in brioche makes it an interesting challenge I’m determined to figure out.

Of course, I love eating the results. I’ve made everything from simple peasant loaves to baguettes to yeasty rolls to soda bread. I love a good, crusty loaf of bread. I don’t think it’s a food I could give up, so I’m grateful that I don’t have any gluten intolerance.

The last week or so has been really challenging. It’s scary to think of how our lives will change. But it’s also a perfect time to try baking bread if you haven’t tried it before.

I got started with Alexandra Stafford’s Bread Toast Crumbs. Stafford has a simple peasant bread recipe that’s fairly foolproof. Her Oatmeal Maple bread became a favorite around the Huff household. I tried out Jim Lahey’s My Bread and The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook with my own sourdough starter and good results. Jim’s biga is a bit easier to work with than straight sourdough starter. In fact, I’m refreshing some starter in the kitchen right now as I write that I will turn into biga once it’s active. I am reading Martin Philip’s Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes and Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread right now. I discovered Stella Culinary’s podcast series on bread and have been listening while washing the dishes. Here is the first episode:

I’ll embed the other episodes at the end of this post, and you can subscribe to Stella Culinary’s podcast on your own as well. Steve sent me Eliza McGraw’s article about going to bread camp and all the baking she’s doing to cope with being stuck inside.

Baking bread has been a welcome diversion for me. So far, I’ve made Paul Hollywood’s sourdough and concluded that with that recipe, it’s not me, it’s him. It’s perfectly serviceable, and I’m eating it, but I prefer the crusty boules full of holes I have produced using Jim Lahey’s methods. I also made Irish soda bread with currants yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day.

If you’re looking for something to do while you’re working from home, why not try making your own starter and trying out some sourdough? King Arthur Flour has some great resources for getting started.

By the way, binge-watching The Great British Baking Show will do your heart good right now. It’s on Netflix, if you have it. Let’s get our own bakeoff going!

A sourdough boule I made using Jim Lahey’s recipe

 

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha Ackmann

These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, Martha AckmannThese Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson by Martha Ackmann
Published by W. W. Norton Company ISBN: 0393609308
on February 25, 2020
Genres: Poetry, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

An engaging, intimate portrait of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest and most-mythologized poets, that sheds new light on her groundbreaking poetry.

On August 3, 1845, young Emily Dickinson declared, “All things are ready”—and with this resolute statement, her life as a poet began. Despite spending her days almost entirely “at home” (the occupation listed on her death certificate), Dickinson’s interior world was extraordinary. She loved passionately, was ambivalent toward publication, embraced seclusion, and created 1,789 poems that she tucked into a dresser drawer.

In These Fevered Days, Martha Ackmann unravels the mysteries of Dickinson’s life through ten decisive episodes that distill her evolution as a poet. Ackmann follows Dickinson through her religious crisis while a student at Mount Holyoke, her startling decision to ask a famous editor for advice, her anguished letters to an unidentified “Master,” her exhilarating frenzy of composition, and her terror in confronting possible blindness. Together, these ten days provide new insights into Dickinson’s wildly original poetry and render a concise and vivid portrait of American literature’s most enigmatic figure.

I have been waiting to read Martha Ackmann’s biography of Emily Dickinson, These Fevered Days, for a few years. Ackmann was one of my instructors at a weeklong workshop on Emily Dickinson’s life and work sponsored by National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, she read the second chapter of this book to us during one session. At that time, she was contemplating calling the book Vesuvius at Home.

The conceit of this book, that ten days changed Emily Dickinson so that she was “different, say, at ten o’clock at night from how she was at ten o’clock that morning” (xviii), is novel and works well, especially considering Dickinson’s life has been the subject of much biographical writing (in spite of her more interior existence). While Ackmann engages in a bit of speculation about what her book’s subjects were thinking or doing, it rings true, and I know for certain that Ackmann’s conjecture is based on solid research. For example, she obtained permission from the Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum to go into the attic of the Dickinson home so that she could ascertain the “certain slant of light” in the room and read Shakespeare aloud, as Dickinson did, in order to determine what that experience was like so that she could render it properly. Dickinson proclaimed that “the rafters wept” at her own reading. Ackmann has also taught a course at Mount Holyoke on Emily Dickinson for years—even bringing her students into the Dickinson home to study her work. Having been a student of Ackmann’s for only week, I’m still not afraid to say she has lived and breathed the poet’s life and work for years, and that knowledge shines forth in this book. The final chapter on Dickinson’s final day of life is rendered especially poignant. Rather than witnessing the passing of a great poet, Ackmann made me feel like I had witnessed the passing of an old and great friend.

Even if you’ve read biographies of Dickinson before, you’ll want to read this book for its intimate portrait of the moments that changed Dickinson’s life. As Ackmann acknowledges, other Dickinson scholars might choose different days, but Ackmann focuses on the following:

  1. The day Dickinson decided to write.
  2. Dickinson’s decision not to commit herself to Christ at the behest of Mary Lyon, principal of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson was attending school.
  3. Emily Dickinson’s first publication (despite popular belief, she did publish a few works anonymously in her lifetime).
  4. Dickinson’s decision to bind her poems together in fascicles and preserve them (Christanne Miller’s book Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is a wonderful resource for more on this).
  5. Dickinson’s work on F124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s advice.
  6. Dickinson’s remarkable decision to write to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who was living in my home city of Worcester, MA at the time) after reading his article “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly and begin a lifelong correspondence and friendship.
  7. Dickinson’s brush with blindness.
  8. The first meeting of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  9. The publication of Dickinson’s poem F112 “Success is Counted Sweetest” in the No Name series after much cajoling by her friend Helen Hunt Jackson.
  10. The day Emily Dickinson died.

Reading this book was extra special for me because I had the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home on several occasions, and I was even permitted to take photographs. I was able to visualize the moments Ackmann describes with greater clarity—I felt like I was there, and not only because of my memories of the Dickinson homestead but also because of Ackmann’s precise description.  Check out Ackmann’s article at The Paris Review for some exquisite photos of Emily Dickinson’s dress. Even though the dress on display at the museum is a copy, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was visiting Amherst for my birthday, and we were touring the Dickinson home. Our guide led us upstairs, and the dress was there on the landing. The light streamed in through the window and illuminated it. It truly took my breath away. One might almost have thought Emily Dickinson herself was standing there. After that thought, my second thought was, “She was so tiny!”

Emily Dickinson means a lot to me. Her poetry brought me comfort after a very difficult loss. Martha Ackmann’s book is well worth your time if you’d like to indulge in a delightfully intimate portrait of the poet in some of her most momentous events.

Emily Dickinson's Bedroom
Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom © Dana Huff
Emily Dickinson's Grave
Emily Dickinson’s Grave © Dana Huff

Note: Please do not reproduce these images. I am permitted to share them as long as I do not seek to profit from them, but I am not able to control what happens to them once they are stolen, and I have pursued websites with DMCA takedown notices for taking these images without permission or credit.

five-stars

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan WrightFrankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0143128795
on January 23, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 281
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he's created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by "Baghdad's new literary star" (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

I read this novel at the suggestion of some friends on Twitter. While I didn’t finish it in time for our online book discussion, I resolved to finish it before I had to return it to the library.

I found the book’s premise intriguing, and I appreciate the fact that it is one of the few books by an Iraqi author that captured the attention of Western readers—which is a shame. However, if I’m being honest, I had no trouble putting the book aside for days at a time. I wouldn’t say I wanted to stop reading it because I did want to finish it. I am also contending with being in graduate school and all the extra time that it takes to finish work for my classes. I also believe the book was engaging and well-written, but perhaps just not for me. I liked a few of the characters, especially Elishva and Hadi. In all, however, I found the book’s various threads a bit disjointed.

three-half-stars

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew Blaney

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe, narrated by Matthew BlaneySay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
Narrator: Matthew Blaney
Published by Random House Audio on 2019
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

From award-winning New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, a stunning, intricate narrative about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland and its devastating repercussions.

In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the vicious conflict known as The Troubles. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the I.R.A. was responsible. But in a climate of fear and paranoia, no one would speak of it. In 2003, five years after an accord brought an uneasy peace to Northern Ireland, a set of human bones was discovered on a beach. McConville’s children knew it was their mother when they were told a blue safety pin was attached to the dress–with so many kids, she had always kept it handy for diapers or ripped clothes.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s mesmerizing book on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath uses the McConville case as a starting point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war, a war whose consequences have never been reckoned with. The brutal violence seared not only people like the McConville children, but also I.R.A. members embittered by a peace that fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland, and left them wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders. From radical and impetuous I.R.A. terrorists such as Dolours Price, who, when she was barely out of her teens, was already planting bombs in London and targeting informers for execution, to the ferocious I.R.A. mastermind known as The Dark, to the spy games and dirty schemes of the British Army, to Gerry Adams, who negotiated the peace but betrayed his hardcore comrades by denying his I.R.A. past. Say Nothing conjures a world of passion, betrayal, vengeance, and anguish.

I read this book on the recommendation of an English teacher friend, Carol Jago. She is one of the most voracious and widely-read people I know, and she has never recommended a book that wasn’t brilliant. This book is no exception. If you are like me and do not know much about The Troubles, this book is a great introduction that will leave you wanting to know more. I know, for example, that I want to read Ed Moloney’s book Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland. If I’m being honest, even though I understand why Ireland was partitioned, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the island is still divided, and I have a feeling it won’t be for too many more years.

I first remember hearing anything about The Troubles as a child, when the Irish Republican prisoners’ hunger strike in the early 1980s was in the news. I remember being really confused by the whole thing. Further, I remember feeling horrified that it was happening. The Troubles were mostly out of the new in the U.S., however. It was easy to know nothing about what was happening in Northern Ireland. Every once in a while, a story about some action or other by the I.R.A. would show up on the news. An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The High Ground” centered on the struggles of the Ansata rebels against the Rutians—it was a very thinly veiled allusion to The Troubles. The Ansata rebel leader’s name was even Kyril Finn. Finn is not only a common surname in Ireland, but it’s also potentially a reference to Fionn mac Cumhaill, a mythological figure in Ireland and the inspiration for the Fenian Brotherhood, a precursor to the I.R.A. Commander Data makes a reference to terrorism effectively achieving the reunification of Ireland in 2024. The episode aired in 1990. At that time, it seemed unlikely, but Brexit will change the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic—as Keefe wonders in his book’s conclusion, I can’t help but speculate if, after years of bloodshed, it will be the politics of Brexit that finally prompt the reunification of Ireland on the same timeline, more or less, as Star Trek predicted. The idea is so incendiary that RTÉ has never aired the episode, and it only aired on the BBC in 2007.

Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams does not come off well, and his repeated insistence that he was never in the I.R.A. strikes me as a bald-faced lie. The Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, are written in their complexity: at the same time as you know they engaged in terrorist acts, and you want to condemn them, they also come off as, well, kind of badass, and you want to admire them for that. I mean no disrespect to their victims in saying so. The descriptions of their force-feeding during their hunger strike are harrowing, and Keefe makes a fairly good case for the lifelong aftereffects seriously impacting the sisters’ health. Above all, Jean McConville emerges as a poignant victim. Whether or not she was a “tout,” as the I.R.A. claimed, she can’t have been providing much useful information, and if she was spying for the British, one can hardly blame her for trying to take care of her ten children, whose lives were irrevocably destroyed by their mother’s murder.

My husband and I listened to this on audio together. Matthew Blaney is an actor from Northern Ireland, and I have to say, it’s something else to hear this story narrated by someone who sounds like the people Keefe is writing about. I would definitely listen to Matthew Blaney read again, even if I have to put up with Steve mimicking an Irish accent into the bargain. His reading is an interpretation of the text—where he emphasizes, the listener learns to pay attention. As much as I recommend the audio, I know I missed some details (as well as the Notes), so I downloaded the book on Kindle for a re-read when I get the chance.

Definitely one of the top nonfiction books I’ve read in some time. It’s gripping, and it is told almost like a mystery novel (especially if you don’t know as much about The Troubles). The book’s final revelations will leave your head spinning.

I made a Spotify playlist about music inspired by The Troubles.

five-stars

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya KaminskyDeaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Published by Graywolf Press ISBN: 1555978312
on March 5, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 80
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

Ilya Kaminsky's astonishing parable in poems asks us, What is silence? Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—they all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language. The story follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence: a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya's girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain. At once a love story, an elegy, and an urgent plea, Ilya Kaminsky's long-awaited Deaf Republic confronts our time's vicious atrocities and our collective silence in the face of them.

Finalist for the T. S. Eliot Prize
Finalist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection

The conceit of Deaf Republic is interesting, especially given that Kaminsky is deaf. This collection is described as a commentary on our times, and it’s true we are living in an era when a lot of people don’t seem to be listening. They don’t seem to be seeing either, but that’s another issue.

Yesterday, I saw a tweet by Kaminsky that feels appropriate to share.

This tweet is in response to the rash actions of the person currently occupying the White House, which many speculate may lead to war. I suppose that remains to be seen. I admit to feeling some unease, which is a reason I picked up this book. Unfortunately, the book didn’t do much to make me feel better. The closing poem makes it clear—whether we are living through a time or war or peace, the U.S. lumbers along, blind to the damage it causes its own citizens, never mind what it does to other countries. It’s a fairly pessimistic collection, and yet, there is also the fact that the citizens of the town continued to fight, even as the soldiers began killing them. Always a dedicated few who want their freedom will risk everything to achieve it.

I appreciate what Kaminsky was doing, and the collection coheres well. The first (above) and final poems stand out for me. I am not sure how many of the individual poems stand up on their own, but I think that’s my personal response. Most of my poetry-loving friends adore this collection. Still, I admire what Kaminsky attempted and achieved, especially because the commentary about human nature is fairly spot-on.

three-half-stars

Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer

Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David TreuerThe Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 0399573194
on January 22, 2019
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
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five-stars


A sweeping history—and counter-narrative—of Native American life from the Wounded Knee massacre to the present.

Dee Brown's 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was the first truly popular book of Indian history ever published. But it promulgated the impression that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee—that not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry but Native civilization did as well.

Growing up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, training as an anthropologist, and researching Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, David Treuer uncovered a different narrative. Instead of disappearing, and despite—or perhaps because of—intense struggles to preserve their language, their culture, their very families, the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented growth and rebirth.

In The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, Treuer melds history with reportage and memoir. Beginning with the tribes' devastating loss of land and the forced assimilation of their children at government-run boarding schools, he shows how the period of greatest adversity also helped to incubate a unifying Native identity. He traces how conscription in the US military and the pull of urban life brought Indians into the mainstream and modern times, even as it steered the emerging shape of their self-rule and spawned a new generation of resistance. In addition, Treuer explores how advances in technology allowed burgeoning Indian populations across the continent to come together as never before, fostering a political force. Photographs, maps, and other visuals, from period advertisements to little-known historical photos, amplify the sense of accessing a fascinating and untold story. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is an essential, intimate history—and counter-narrative—of a resilient people in a transformative era.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is the first book I finished in 2020, and it’s a fitting start. I’m really glad I read it. Treuer’s book is based, in part, on ethnography he did in the last ten years. In addition to capturing the lives of a broad, diverse, and numerous (though not as numerous as it should be) people, he captures the stories of individuals—everyone from a cousin involved in MMA and another living off the land, collecting pinecones, leeches, and cranberry bark in addition to ricing, to Indians* at the forefront of a new movement in indigenous food and fitness. Treuer explains in his epilogue that his goal in writing this book was “to catch us not in the act of dying but, rather, in the radical act of living” (453). His call to action is for all of us to consider what kind of country we want to live in and to work in our ways to build that country.

Treuer’s writing is beautiful. I did not realize he had written fiction, as this was my first of his books, but I was not surprised to learn it after seeing his way with words in this book. Many nonfiction writers tend to dispense with pretty prose in favor of utilitarian fact-telling—the writing is a means to an end but not necessary to the journey itself—but Treuer’s writing is a meld of poetic storytelling—at times harrowing and other times funny. I appreciated his voice and thorough research.

The book is structured in seven parts:

  1. Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE-1890. If this seems like a lot of compression, remember that Treuer’s goal is to discuss the history since Wounded Knee, and this part was necessarily compressed to allow for the space to do that.
  2. Purgatory: 1891-1934. This part covers the period of the Dawes Act, Allotment, Indian boarding schools, the institution of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
  3. Fighting Life: 1914-1945. This part covers not only Indian involvement in both World Wars but also the Meriam Report that investigated the state of Indian affairs and the government’s Indian policy.
  4. Moving on Up—Termination and Relocation: 1945-1970. This part covers the migration of Indians to urban areas, where the majority of Indians live today, and the Termination Act of 1953, which “proposed to fix the Indian problem once and for all by making Indians—legally, culturally, and economically—no longer Indians at all” (250).
  5. Becoming Indian: 1970-1990. This part discusses the reclamation of indigenous culture as part of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and also the sort of pan-Indianism that resulted when people of different nations and tribes joined forces as well as the beginning of US policy that favored Indian interests.
  6. Boom City—Tribal Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century. This part covers the rise of casinos and other capitalist ventures that have enabled some nations and tribes to become successful and even wealthy.
  7. Digital Indians: 1990-2018. This part describes the efforts of modern Indians to reclaim culture (including language and foodways) and be Indian in the modern world.

One thing I appreciated as a fellow Gen-Xer was what I would describe as a uniquely Gen-X take on history, particularly on AIM. I don’t mean Treuer is cynical because he is anything but cynical, but he is honest. I think many civil rights movement leaders tend to be lionized rather than seen as flawed people who did some very good things but who also were not perfect and even did some very wrong things. It might just be me, but I feel like that is a particularly Gen-X take on civil rights movements because we were the generation after Boomers, who thought they were idealistic and would change the world—they protested the Vietnam War, they attempted to open up America’s puritanical views on sex, they fought for rights for Black people, women, and (to a much lesser extent) Indians. But the 1980s seems to have wiped out their remaining idealism. Ronald Reagan’s ideas won the day, and they voted for that country, so they must have wanted it. So when people want to accuse Gen-Xers of being cynical, remember what we saw with our older siblings and parents who were Boomers. Treuer’s view of the leaders of AIM was much more balanced. Yes, they drew attention to Indian concerns and united people from diverse Indian backgrounds toward a common goal. They also sidelined Native women and engaged in a great deal of violence. I appreciated this nuanced point of view. Part of this Gen-X so-called cynicism is actually a core of realistic optimism I feel like some Gen-Xers have (some folks might argue with me about that), and Treuer has that realistic optimism. It is possible for us all to improve our country, but it will take active participation in shaping that future, and we have to understand why we are where we are today.

*Treuer uses this term for indigenous people in the United States, and I understand it is one of many preferred terms, hence my use of it in this review.

Note: I purchased this book for research for my Social Justice course and have not been compensated by anyone for this review.

five-stars

Review: Obsure, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Read by Michael Ian Black

Obscure by Michael Ian BlackThe last episode of Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure (the premise of which is that Michael Ian Black reads Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure and comments on it as he goes) dropped a few weeks ago, but graduate school hasn’t left me with a lot of time. Now that I’m on break, both from graduate school and work, I have been able to catch up.

I will be honest. I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles a couple of years ago and found it so bleak that I wasn’t sure about listening to Michael Ian Black read Jude the Obscure. Hardy can be really bleak. In that respect, Jude the Obscure doesn’t disappoint. However, the communal experience of listening to this book and hearing Michael Ian Black’s reactions to what he was reading transcended the actual text itself and made for one of the most enjoyable “reads” of the year for me.

For those not familiar with the story, the protagonist Jude is born in obscurity to a family with a history of bad luck. He is raised by his aunt, who makes it clear he is nothing but a burden. He dreams of being a scholar one day, and he shows an aptitude for learning. However, he is living in Victorian England and finds it impossible to rise in the world. He winds up married young to a grasping, scheming woman, finds a brief period of happiness and love with his cousin Sue, and suffers devastating loss. The plot is typical Hardy. However, there is something moving and transcendent about Jude’s experience. Jude might be any of us. Jude is any one of us. Michael Ian Black’s reading brought home that point in a way I’m not sure I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read the book in this way.

One thing I loved about Michael Ian Black’s reading is that it started with curiosity, and he remained curious throughout the reading. He frequently brought on guests who might help illuminate issues raised by the book, and when he didn’t know a word or a reference, he looked it up. I felt like I went on a journey with him as a fellow reader. Michael Ian Black doesn’t position himself as an expert. He makes it clear he is reading and reacting to the text based on his own experiences and understandings, and that is probably what is best about Obscure. I found listening to the podcast by turns laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly sad, particularly towards the end as Michael Ian Black connects his reading of the book to losses of his own. His interpretation always struck me as spot-on and very honest.

The podcast is worth your time, and if you fall behind, it’s great for bingeing. I really, really hope that Michael Ian Black reads other books like this.

Edited to add: The novel underscored for me again, as if I need more evidence, that literature reflects the human condition. We can find ourselves in it if we take a look, and Michael Ian Black’s reading of this classic novel definitely allowed for that kind of reflection. My friend Robin writes so much more eloquently than I can about literature’s power to show us ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★★

2020 Reading Challenges

I always knew I would not meet the challenge goals I set for myself in 2019 because of graduate school. BUT. I will be done with my coursework in May, and even though I’ll still be conducting research and will begin my dissertation, I think I might just have a little bit more time to read what I want to read in 2020. I did plenty of reading. I did A LOT of reading. It was graduate school reading, though.

I enjoy participating in reading challenges because they help me define reading goals, so I have selected the following reading challenges. However, I need to be a bit more realistic this year and pare it down. I am just going to participate in four challenges.

2020 Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeI like to do the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge each year because historical fiction is my favorite genre. I will shoot for the Victorian Reader level of five books. If I have a good reading year, I may increase it, but we will see what happens. I do not know yet what I will read, but I know one of the books will be the third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which is due out in March.

I am signing up for a new-to-me challenge called the Social Justice Nonfiction Challenge 2020. I had planned some reading along these lines already, and I am hoping to identify books I might not otherwise have heard about through this challenge.

Social Justice Challenge

I have enjoyed participating in the Monthly Motif Challenge the last couple of years, even though I haven’t finished it. It gives my reading a fun focus. I am not sure what books I will read. I kind of like playing it by ear. They have some fun motifs planned for this year.

Monthly Motif 2020

Last year was my first year participating in the Reading Women Challenge. Again, I didn’t come close to finishing, but I really like the look of their suggested list.

Reading Women Challenge

 

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

five-stars