Category Archives: books

Reading The Hundred Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey

The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian OdysseyThe Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I knew of the Armenian Genocide in an abstract way. This telling, largely based on journals of one involved, made it so harrowing and vivid. It is hard to imagine marching on while one’s companions drop out to die, being unable to help.  Not only leaving companions behind but marching by bodies of those who had died days before. Thirty plus died in a day.

It is also hard to imagine the thirst, the hunger, the lack of clothing.

And the ruse that they were going back home when they were actually going to be executed, which eventually the deportees realized.

The grandfather’s story was so well told that even though I knew he came out alive, I was on pins and needles as I read challenge after challenge, betrayal after betrayal.

The weakest part was the narration of the author’s journey retracing the grandfather’s. It was a good idea, an important link, but fell flat to my ear. There were a few places where it livened up a bit: in the shop with the women dressing her in a scarf to go into a mosque and the meeting of the family of the Sheikh who saved the grandfather.

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Shifting from ‘Criminal Justice’ Frame to ‘Racial Justice’ Frame in One Book

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Because this book has been around since 2010, information from it has trickled into my awareness. Still, there was much in it that I did not already know.

Alexander (no relation) explicated in detail how laws that sound neutral can be racist in their effect; the drug war involves such laws. The short version: blacks and whites use and sell drugs at about the same rate; blacks are imprisoned with felony charges, whites are less likely to be so charged. Felony charges affect people for life after prison: no public housing, no food stamps, the box on employment applications–becoming outcasts. Whites are less likely to go to jail. The judicial system has made it impossible to win lawsuits claiming racism unless there is overt hostile intent–impact is ignored.

She shows how nothing can change without a change in public consciousness as she traces similarities in slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary drug-war imprisonments. Attitudes find new ways to express themselves and maintain what she names a racial caste system.

The book is very detailed, as it must be, to show the systemic nature of the racism she addresses, something that occurs on an almost subconscious level. I did find the similarities section of Chapter 5, “The New Jim Crow” to repeat too much of what had been clearly presented before, but when she got to the differences, new information surfaced.

The concluding chapter, “The Fire This Time,” defends her claim that legislative change alone will only open new variations of oppression unless public consciousness changes as well. She discusses other solutions that have not worked, including “color blindness.” The claimed neutrality of “color blindness” serves to mask systemic racism. Rather than becoming blind to color, we need to stop being blind to injustice. We need to learn to talk about race. (This is beginning to happen more in the years since the book’s publication.) She points to a time when slaves and white impoverished workers were divided even though they had issues in common and urges a return to working together.

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A Book Instead of a Quilt

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This amazing book caught my interest with the first paragraph, and that without the ‘in medias res’ beginning. Oh there was back story, but the actual plot began in Chapter 1 with two girls stealing fruit.

The pace is leisurely for the first two thirds, then speeds up, the style descriptive and immediate. There were few characters, though towns and other activities were implied. The characters were well developed with flaws and virtues–all but one, who had no redeeming qualities.

Much of the book was about ideas never stated (the Orchardist himself, Jane and Della, sometimes Caroline Middey, though she was the most likely to speak) or about inability to speak (Clee). Angeline was more the one who wanted to know than one not communicating. Each had their own type of isolation, though there were also relationships.

The novel deals with aging, birth, the growing up of children, and the diminished abilities of the elderly, always matter of factly, sometimes understated. Never heavy handed philosophizing.

This is a rare book that remains excellent through the ending. (view spoiler)

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Reading Instead of Sewing, Again

Facts & Fabrications-Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects 20 Blocks First-Person AccountsFacts & Fabrications-Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects 20 Blocks First-Person Accounts by Barbara Brackman

The history is in summary form, but there are endnotes with further sources.

The book opens with a brief discussion of myth Vs. historical method. This is followed by an abbreviated history of slavery from the beginning of the slave trade to emancipation and migration. Although I am fairly familiar with the topic (having read The Great Migration, I learned some new detail (the migration to the plains). And the quotations from diaries and WPA recorded oral histories added an important dimension.

Brackman links each stage of the history to a quilt block by the name of the block, a story telling method she links with the 20th century. The idea is to create a mnemonic for remembering the history.

The block patterns and quilt layouts are clearly explained and illustrated, but she refers readers to other how-to books for basic quilting instructions. She also includes suggestions for adapting the history and sewing to children (in formal and informal settings)  and includes possible discussion questions.

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Reading about Race

Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of RaceWaking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I appreciated reading this meditation on growing personal awareness of whiteness as a race, not as neutral or a norm. It is not an easy lesson to learn, and Irving shares her missteps as well as her successes.

Sometimes books on interracial communication leave me fearful of saying anything at all. Irving answers that fear by speaking of the need to get over ourselves, to get over needing to be seen as a “good person” or a “good anti-racist,” but to be willing to be vulnerable.

Irving admits that her white culture could be different from that of other readers due to differences in social class. And while much of what she describes rings true to me and I admit white privilege, there are some networking advantages she had that were not available to me. Those differences do not negate her message that we need to own our privilege and see its flip side in privilege withheld from people of color. And I can identify with the dominant white cultural dictum to avoid conflict, hence avoid discussion. Yep, I was raised like that.

Irving’s book is not about white do-goodism; in fact that is one of the stages she went through on her way. Nor is it about diversity training. Rather it is about recognizing and confronting systemic racism and our place in it.

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An Important Book: Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought that I had thought all the necessary questions about end-of-life decisions, and I had thought many. But Gawande opens up new questions for evaluating those issues.

Gawande also opens up new ways to think about dealing with debilitating changes forced by disease or age. He offers a critique of traditional nursing homes, of what “assisted living” has become, and of medical practice based more on procedures than persons. His illustrations with case studies–some showing failure, others showing success–take the book beyond theory to readable.

Gawande challenges the narrow focus on safety and extending life and replaces it with concern for quality of life. He notes that people making quality-of-life decisions for patients often think in terms of what they, themselves, want, not what the patient would want. He questions the Maslow hierarchy’s application to all ages and stages. “Freedom to be the author of our lives” within whatever circumstances we are dealt becomes primary. He offers discussion questions for medical personnel and family to use to understand what the patient sees as desirable quality of life, then urges discussion of ways to accomplish it.

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585 Pages Later

You might have noticed that I’ve not been posting much of my own quilting. I’ve been reading to make up for the time spent last month quilting for the show.

I highly recommend this book.

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The novel tells of Ifemeu and Obinze, their lives in Nigeria, US, and UK. Along with them are many other well developed characters, major and minor. A few who made short appearances were two-dimensional. We learn many ways to be Nigerian and American through the characters, but none of them existed only to be illustrations.

I enjoyed all 580+ pages, and was in suspense till the very end as to the conclusion. And I would have found it a satisfying read if it had ended in two of the three ways I’d anticipated, tolerable for the third. And every page was necessary to get to that conclusion.

The narrative movement was not chronological, though there was a clear timeline to the present section. The back story appeared more thematically as it related to the present story. The bulk of the novel was back story.

The social commentary was well handled, never controlling the narrative, appearing often through Ifemelu’s blog–first through subject lines, then through actual entries. Other appearances through conversations of Ifemelu and her friends. Always natural and appropriate to the context. An outsider’s view on US race issues was revealing as were observations on gender roles in both US and Nigeria.

The style is worth remarking. Vivid descriptions help evoke an unfamiliar world. Images, such as “yet there was cement in her soul” (7) and “the air wrinkling between them”(338) evoke the interior of the characters and conversations.

It leads me to want to read her other works.

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