Tag Archives: social change

“Here for It – or, how to save your soul in America” by R. Eric Thomas – Covid19 #4

Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America; Essays Kindle Edition

Ballantine Books, 264 pages, 2020. (That’s EARLY 2020, before the pandemic.)

In the text, R. Eric Thomas tells us he wanted this book to be called Casual Nigger but EVERYBODY (editor, agent, who?) went nuts. Hence, the less controversial Here for It. Here for what? Life, actually. Thomas battled depression and struggled mightily to “find himself”. In these essays, he lets us in on his battles, small and large.

The title, of course, is on the cover, and I find the cover image alarming. On a pink background, a “black” man’s hand is tossing confetti. Fine! But the hand is deformed. I know hands. The thumb joint is WAY out of line. Injury? Age? Is it painful? Does Thomas know the hand is damaged? Was the choice intentional? My hands (both, regrettably) are less obviously deformed, but cause pain daily. But I digress…

R E Thomas is funny. Goodness knows, a funny sociopolitical commentator is a real find! He’s a wise guy. Sociologically, he’s “intersectional”, expressing African American, LGBTQ and Christian identities. Here for It is autobiographical. He was born in Baltimore and spent decades in Philadelphia.

I was particularly interested Thomas’s college years at Columbia University and University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus).

Toward the end of the book, in a Chapter entitled “The Past Smelled Terrible”, Thomas waxes both prophetic and patriotic. HOW DID HE KNOW WHAT WAS COMING??

“I can’t help but think constantly about the end of the world…Listen. Here’s my living will, okay? I have no desire to survive the apocalypse…if the post-apocalypse comes about because of a massive plague or something, I have no useful medical or scientific skills…I would like to be Patient 15. Maybe Patient 20. No higher than 50. I don’t want to be Patient Zero, because then everyone would blame me, which is rude…I just want to go early, while they’re still doing nice tributes to the victims on television and I can get my own grave plot.”

WTF? Did Thomas know something? Where is he now? I hope he’s riding out the pandemic someplace comfortable. (I started to say “safe and comfortable”. No place is “safe”.) I grabbed this book from my public library on March 11, just before the big shutdown. I knew enough to grab extra books, maybe a dozen. Good luck, Eric!

“Real Simple” magazine, before and after. Covid19 #3

Real Simple | Women's Lifestyle Magazine Subscription from Magazine.Store

About 10 days into my voluntary “quarantine”, a magazine arrived in my mailbox. I take only a few print magazines… I like “Real Simple” for its recipes and it’s crisp, colorful layout. Often I feel like the lifestyle it portrays isn’t “mine”, too stark… But what I pondered this month is that this “April” issue clearly comes from “before”. Full of cheerful, friendly articles about spring cleaning and freezer organization.

You know, before “all this”. Before the pandemic and shutdown. Before “social distancing” and “shelter in place”. How will we refer to “before”?

  • The Age of Innocence?
  • Back then?
  • The old normal?
  • The bad or good old days?

Some writers refer to our current status as “The Pause”. They hope something good will come out of it.

I remember, in 2001, the arrival of my first piece of mail that reflected the post 9/11 reality, the “Nation” magazine cover showing a very simple, stylized graphic of the two burning towers. I felt a dark sense of finality. I’m never going to get away from this…

News cycles spin faster now, and are far more internet dependent. There wasn’t one image to jar me into a new reality, although the cascade of events late on March 11 came close – NBA season suspended, Presidential travel ban, press conference… March 11 was my personal turning point. I wrote in my personal journal “This is an emergency.”

The next time “Real Simple” arrives in my mailbox, it will be different. (In fact, it will never be the same. The website has already morphed.) All of us are “coping”, dealing with changes we never expected. The dangers of an epidemic have caused anxiety to skyrocket, and maybe depression, too. There are plenty of sages who remind us to look for the advantages in our situation. Sometimes I can find them… sometimes not.

“Away with the Fairies” and “Unnatural Habits”, Phrynne Fisher Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood

Away with the Fairies (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Book 11)

My concentration was greatly impaired by the onset of the Corona pandemic, so I didn’t charge through these books as fast as I normally would. But they were great fun and provided the distraction I needed. Phrynne Fisher is entertaining, and Greenwood has assembled a robust collection of supporting characters.

Greenwood is an Australian author with a law degree and thirty or more books to her credit, of which I have read half a dozen. Recurring themes are feminism and social justice. In Unnatural Habits, Greenwood takes on the Catholic church. Unlike most writers in the mystery genre, her books include bibliographies, which is good because some plotlines strain credulity, and it’s worthwhile to learn what stimulated Greenwood’s imagination.

Unnatural Habits also includes an Afterword, in which she describes her uncanny personal experience in a convent she used as a setting. On its grounds, “…I walked into the most dreadful concentrated suicidal despair I have ever felt. Someone had stood at that window and really wanted to die. I ran.” How many authors share something like THAT?! Out of curiosity, I Googled Abbotsford Convent, now a conference/cultural center. It looks decidedly unhaunted, and is sorrowfully announcing temporary closure due to Corona virus. But where are the nuns? Not a habit in sight!

Ms Greenwood also writes Young Adult novels and science fiction. I’ll give them a try.

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

This enjoyable historical fiction novel introduced me to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into slavery and purchased freedom for herself and her son. (Her son’s life history would also be worth a novel – he enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War by “passing” as white at a time when free African Americans were not accepted into the military. He died in combat.) Ms. Keckley became modiste (we would say “stylist”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln herself is an interesting historical figure, mostly because it isn’t clear whether she was sane.

Ms. Keckley was an extremely talented dressmaker, and had the sewing and business skills to support herself and send her son to America’s  first historically black college, Wilberforce College in Ohio.

This book gives insight into

  • The Civil War, especially as seen by residents of Washington DC.
  • The unpopularity and suffering of Abraham Lincoln, now often described as our greatest American president.
  • The evolving status of African Americans during the complex process of emancipation.

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Keckley published an account of her experiences entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was simultaneously derided as too good (how could a “nigger” have written it?) and too bad (such a disgrace to write about one’s employers). Mrs. Lincoln eventually forgave her, but Ms. Keckley ended her life in straitened circumstances and seclusion.

The historical record of Ms. Keckley’s life in incomplete, so this fictional characterization necessarily contains considerable speculation. Keeping that in mind, I recommend it.

“The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan AND Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”

This book reminded me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Shaffer and Barrows, published in 2009. Each novel consists of a series of letters, diary entries and notices. Ryan’s novel seemed less “spontaneous” than Guernsey. Would anyone really write such wildly uninhibited letters?? But both novels, each dealing with British civilian life during World War II, make good reading.

The church choir in the village of Chilbury is deactivated when too few men are left in town to sing tenor and bass. The Ladies Choir’ takes its place, at first tentatively and then with vigor. Chilbury is located next to a city named Litchfield Park, possibly meant to resemble Bletchley Park, where Britain’s crucially important code breakers were headquartered.

Yes, there’s a spy among the characters. He turns out NOT to be a villain. Ryan creates interesting villains. One is predictable, a military man (a brigadier) who bullies his family and neighbors. But another is a midwife! (See my blog entry of May 24, 2018 about midwives in fiction.) The brigadier and the midwife enter into a nefarious scheme to insure a male heir for the brigadier. Other plots unfold. Many important characters are children and adolescents. Ryan depicts the impact of war on their young lives very realistically.

Ryan’s plotting is uninhibited – she throws in complications fast and furious. I couldn’t stop reading! One of my favorite characters was Kitty, the third child of the brigadier. At 13, she’s full of energy and curiosity, headlong and rambunctious and confused by the War and it’s impacts. She reaches out to other children and also to adults as she struggles to cope. There are enough interesting characters in this book to make me hope for a sequel. After all, the Battle of Britain has barely started!

What’s this got to do with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Twelfth Night”? I attended a discussion of the play recently. Remember the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, who are separated after a shipwreck? Viola disguises herself as a man, and is mistaken for her brother, who she fears is dead. Love at first sight strikes several characters, and giddy confusions ensues. Our discussion leader pointed out that “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle, namely “What You Will”. Our starting discussion question was “Is love something you WILL, or is it something that happens to you?” Great question! We talked for over an hour. Do you choose to love? Does reason play any role in love? No, we didn’t reach a conclusion.

In The Chilbury Ladies Choir, Jennifer Ryan depicts characters to whom love “happened”. They weren’t “looking for love”, but were taken by surprise. There are two couples, one young but sophisticated, the other older and burdened with sorrows. For each of these four people, love is a dangerous path.

The person who recommended this book to me said it was about music. This aspect was handled lightly and deftly, with occasional references to hymns and choral performances. Two other themes are change and leadership.

This book rises well above the “chick lit” or “beach reading” category. I’d classify it as high quality historical fiction. The echoes of World War I are important. Read and enjoy, but remember, war is hell.

“A Dubious Legacy” by Mary Wesley

The person who loaned me this book said it was “funny”. Usually I would ask “What kind of funny?” since there are so many possibilities, but I was distracted. So I jumped into the book without preconceptions.

Is there a category of “over the top” fiction? Everything seems exaggerated, a little extreme, often in ways that are indeed hilarious.

Analogy: Recently I took a colorful photograph of a brightly colored insect. Fooling around with the “edit” function on my cell phone camera, I discovered color adjustment settings called “vivid” and “dramatic”. I would say that Mary Wesley writes in those two settings. The net effect is slightly manic but loads of fun. Yes, this is entertaining modern fiction.

A Dubious Legacy is set in post World War II England. Another categorization would be “comedy of manners”. A group of young adults congregate in the country home/farm of Henry B, whose eccentric wife dominates the book without being “present” very often.

A Dubious Legacy makes it clear why Women’s Liberation (one descriptive term of many…) emerged in the 1960s. The men of the 1950s (as described by Wesley) were insufferable jerks and it’s amazing any marriages survived at all. Wesley has fun turning the career “issue” upside down. The young women WANT to marry, while their parents, tempered by the Depression and World War II, want their daughters to go to work, even at tedious jobs.

A Dubious Legacyreminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, which everyone liked except me. A group is followed for years, generations. I found Commonwealth unbearably grim. Yes, life includes suffering. Did these people have to suffer SO MUCH? I like Wesley’s lighter touch so much better. Some people and situations could have been more fully explored, but I understand Wesley started writing late in life, driven to it by financial pressure. So I’m willing to suspend criticism and enjoy her madcap story telling.