Posted by: Rita | January 1, 2016

A year of social justice reading

I’ve made a commitment to myself: in 2016, I will read books on social justice and post a review every week. I will write about what I’m reading, revisit some old favorites, and seek out new books and ideas. I’ll use this space to process and ponder and reflect on what I’m reading. I’ll ask for suggestions, especially for books I might not have heard about, books written from perspectives that are different (from mine) or books that are radical or simply poetic. So, as my old buddy Calvin once said to Hobbes: “Let’s go exploring.”

Posted by: Rita | September 27, 2016

Book Thirty-Seven: Eco Barons By Edward Humes

eco-baronsWhat’s an Eco Baron?  It’s sort of like a robber baron, only way cooler.  Here’s how Ed Humes describes them:

In an era in which government has been either broke, indifferent or actively hostile to environmental causes, a band of visionaries — inventors, philanthropists, philosophers, grassroots activists, lawyers and gadflies — are using their wealth, their energy, their celebrity and their knowledge of law and science to persuade, and sometimes force, the United States and the world to take a new direction …

Hume’s book Eco Barons is about visionaries, men and women who look at our planet in peril and act.  They are “writing the next chapter in the story, and theirs is a message of hope:  The world can be saved,” Humes writes. And saving the world is social justice at its finest, is it not?

The men and women described in Eco Barons range from controversial to mainstream; from rich to poor, from celebrities to obscure unknowns.  But they all have one thing in common – they have seen environmental devastation and are acting to prevent it.  Doug Tompkins began to buy up the rainforests of southern Chile in order to preserve them from deforestation; Kierán Suckling and Peter Galvin began using the Endangered Species Act to protect the forests of the American southwest and went on to found the Center for Biological Diversity; single mom Carole Allen has spent her entire life working to save the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle; Roxanne Quimby, who started Burt’s Bees, has used her fortune to preserve the Maine woods.  And then there is Andrew Frank, who has championed electric cars for decades; Terry Tamminen, promoter of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, one the nation’s most comprehensive environmental laws; and Ted Turner who, well, has lots of money and uses it to do good things.

Despite its inherent flaw – there are way more Eco Barons than Humes could ever describe, and therefore he leaves out too many of them  – it is a wonderful book, an easy read, a hopeful script about what people are doing, what can be done, to protect the planet.  It is also an optimistic and timely reminder that individuals can make a difference.

Posted by: Rita | September 13, 2016

Book Thirty-Six: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Okay, so, this is not at all a social justice book — however 1) I love track and field almost as much as I love reading and writing about social justice and 2) I am traveling this week so needed a fill in review (I wrote this for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials’ souvenir program and we never ended up publishing it…)

shoe-dog-jacket-coverHe wanted to be a professional athlete, but wasn’t quite good enough. So he fell back on a ‘crazy idea’ that would allow him to stay involved in the sport. Pursuit of that ‘crazy idea’ led him around the world and then back home to Portland – where he and a group of misfit men (who called one another “Buttface”) committed themselves to three things: play – the idea of having fun while creating, building and selling the best running shoes in the history of running; to a culture of innovation – working as a team to do things the right way no matter what others might say or believe; and, of course, to victory – against all comers and against all odds.

It helped that many of the misfits on his team were also distance runners who had endured being coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman (he of hot keys in the steam room and hot rubber on waffle iron fame.) The endurance they’d built in their legs and lungs surely helped as their small business – Blue Ribbon Sports – struggled against bankers who didn’t believe in them, suppliers who couldn’t get shipments to market on time, and competitors who wanted to crush the little company that could.

The origin story arc of Nike is well known – unexceptional runner makes it big by brilliant business acumen and a partnership with an innovative running coach who wanted to help his athletes run faster. But the details of the story – from the perspective of the founder – had never been told in any accurate detail.

In “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike,” Phil Knight exposes the near failures and often inadvertent successes of the ‘crazy idea’ that became Nike. He tells of his own self-doubts and the bigger doubts of his father (who was his first financier.) Of the twists and turns and steep learning curve required in order to work with business partners who came from another culture and another country (Japan.) And of the underlying fortitude that striving for excellence required.

Mr. Knight often says that the turning point in his life was when Coach Bowerman asked to be a partner in the venture that eventually became Nike. It was a partnership that was based not on an equal sharing of the workload, but on the pairing of different areas of expertise and the deep trust needed for a successful collaboration: Bowerman innovated on shoe design; Knight figured out how to get those innovative shoes built and sold.

Shoe Dog is an intriguing read for anybody with even a passing interest in track and field. But what is surprising is what a page-turner it is!  The characters are well drawn, the pacing is perfect and the language is spare, but eloquent.  The storytelling about Nike ends just after the company goes public, so there are many chapters left unwritten: Michael Jordan and the ascent of individually branded athletes, the pivot toward sustainability that Mr. Knight hints at in the epilogue, and more of the personal – for example, the partnership with Oregon Health Sciences University to raise millions for cancer research. As with all good books, the end leaves you wishing for more.

 

hemingway book clubThis isn’t my usual social justice book, but it is indeed social justice in action:  When Paula Huntley arrived in Prishtina, Kosovo in September 2000, the rubble  from the NATO bombings still filled the streets, and the devastation caused by Slobodan Milosevic still tainted the minds and lives of its citizens. Huntley had only a vague idea of what she might do in Kosovo while her husband worked on helping   to create a new legal system for the country.  But when she was hired to teach English to a group of Kosovo Albanians, Huntley was immediately charmed by her students.   They had lived through such dreadful times yet were filled with great optimism.

After finding an English language copy of Old Man and the Sea in a bookstore, Huntley began a book club with her students, and the “Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo”  was born.

Huntley calls her book “an accidental book” since it began as a journal and series of  e-mails she sent home. The book maintains the feel of a journal; dated entries describe her days in Kosovo, each entry building on the ones before. Because of  this, the book is a little uneven — sometimes poetic, sometimes rather dry — but always engaging.

The book club gave Huntley an opportunity to learn about the lives of her students outside the classroom, and she records stories of the dire living conditions during the war and the bombings, and of the still harsh conditions of present-day Kosovo, especially during the cold, dull winter months. Other entries are more personal — Huntley’s reflections on her work and day-to-day life in Prishtina.

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo is not just a memoir of an extraordinary time in Paula Huntley’s life; it is a history lesson and rumination on the collateral consequences of war, the capacity for human compassion and the power of hope.

Tears of the DesertA number of years ago, on Christmas Eve, my children were tracking Santa on the NORAD website using Google Earth. We caught up with him (well, the little icon that represents him) just as he began to fly over western Africa.  As he left Chad heading east, one of my daughters noticed a bunch of red and yellow flames on the map.

“Mom, what are those?” she asked.

As I zoomed the map in on western Sudan, I realized that the flames represented the genocide in Darfur.

“That is Darfur. There is a genocide happening there and many people are being killed and burned out of their homes.” I explained.  In our somber conversation on Christmas Eve we barely touched on the deep horror of the genocide.  I did not tell my daughters of the atrocities that Hamila Bashir lived and writes about in her memoir Tears of the Desert:  A Memoir of Survival in Darfur. I could not find language that would answer their questions of why and how men could do such things to others, especially to children.

But somehow Bashir does. In language that is both understated and severe, Bashir begins by telling of her early life with her close-knit family in their Zaghawa village, where she plays with her brothers and tries to keep from getting in trouble with her strict grandma.  Bashir’s family is wealthy, so she is able to go to boarding school—and becomes an excellent student. She is admitted to study medicine at the university. It is a highly coveted honor, and an education that she will use in ways she could never have imagined.

As she is finishing her studies, her country begins to fall into the darkness that will become genocide.

“Never, not even in my darkest, blackest nightmare, had I imagined that I would ever witness such horror” Bashir writes.  She describes treating Aisha, a young girl raped by the Janjaweed:  “As I gazed in horror at her limp form, a keening, empty wail kept coming from somewhere deep within her throat – over and over and over again.  It was a sound like I had never heard before – a hollow cry of brutalized innocence, of innocence forever lost.”

Bashir too is brutalized. Her innocence is forever lost. But she has the strength to tell her story, to witness to the world.  She has the strength to go on, to marry, to have a child.  And despite the fact that the fires of Darfur burned for far too long, she ends her book on a note of hope, bouncing her baby on her lap, safe in her apartment in London.  It brings some comfort that now that her baby is old enough to track Santa, those flames on Google Earth have been extinguished. We can only hope they never return.

We Are All The SameWhen Nkosi Johnson stood before the crowd of AIDS activists at the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, he was a very sick little boy. His eleven-year-old body had fought valiantly against the virus unwittingly transmitted to him at birth by a mother mired in poverty and powerlessness. But the virus was winning. “I hate having AIDS” he told the crowd. But, he went on: “We are all the same. We are not different from one another. . . .  and we have needs just like everybody else. Don’t be afraid of us.”

Jim Wooten, an award-winning senior correspondent for ABC News, has written a tender and compelling book which intertwines the story of Nkosi Johnson’s battle with AIDS and the discrimination he experienced because of his disease with the bigger story of the history of South Africa in the post-apartheid era and the blight of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

As a news journalist, Wooten admits to covering the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa with an attitude of detachment – and a bit of despair. But after being assigned to do a story about Nkosi, he found his efforts to remain “emotionally uninvolved” were failing. He also found, after a meeting with the President of Uganda where comprehensive efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS had significantly reduced the infection rate, hope for the future. That hope was personified by Nkosi Johnson and his white South African adoptive mother Gail.

Nkosi’s biological mother Daphne made the difficult choice that far too many mothers in sub-Saharan Africa make every day: to leave her child in the care of strangers where she hoped he would receive the medical care and nutritious food that she was unable to provide. Gail Johnson, who had helped to establish and run a hospice for AIDS patients, became Nkosi’s caretaker and his champion. She forced the government to allow him to attend school, obtained free medical care for him from expert physicians, and perhaps most importantly, treated him with love and laughter and respect. And she does so without presuming to be the “white savior” – she acknowledges her privilege and uses it to make the lives of many orphan children better.

Wooten is a sensitive narrator. He doesn’t let his voice or his presence interfere with the telling of the real story: of AIDS, of South Africa, and of a sick little boy who reminded us that despite the differences in our skin color, our socio-economic status, our well-being – we are all the same. This is a alesson that seems to be missing from some of our current political rhetoric. I imagine Nkosi -who died in 2001 – would be disappointed in the divisiveness and ‘othering’ that continues – though not as specifically regarding those with HIV/AIDS, but all too often for people who looked like he did.

An Execution in the FamilyIf there is a difference between a memoir and an autobiography, it is, perhaps, measured by the elegance of the prose. By that standard, Robert Meeropol’s An Execution in the Family is definitely autobiography.

Meeropol is the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed on June 19, 1953 after being convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Meeropol was just six years old at the time, and therefore can be forgiven for the lack of detail about the impact of the execution on his young psyche. Unfortunately, he tells the story of his childhood as if it were a class assignment for high school English — with little description of the scenes, no development of the characters who people his life, and scant emotion.

It isn’t until his mid-40s that Meeropol finally comes to grips with the full impact of his parent’s execution, and it is only at that point that the telling of his story begins to sound like something more than dictation. Although it takes almost 185 pages to get there, it is worth the wait. Meeropol is courageous in his self-analysis — and precise in his conclusions. He comes to believe that it is impossible to know exactly what his parents may or may not have done, and although he is convinced (and convincing in his analysis) that they were executed for a crime which they did not commit, he stops short of saying that they were innocent. This distinction may seem small, but it shapes the rest of his adult life. Once Meeropol stops trying to prove his parents’ innocence, he is able to move on and build upon their legacy. He creates the Rosenberg Children’s Fund which supports the children of political prisoners in the United States. Through this foundation, he is both able to find peace with his parents’ legacy and help support the “leftie” causes to which his parents were tied.

Despite the lack of lyrical storytelling, An Execution in the Family is a compelling tale and provides a voice for those not often remembered: the children of the executed.

 

BadFem-pb-cropwithborderIn a world where the nominees for President of the United States are a woman with decades of public service credentials vs. a straight white male known for his misogyny, racism and anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim comments, Roxanne Gay’s essays, though written before either candidate was nominated, are, if nothing else, provocative.

Ranging from her take on the word ‘feminist’ to how pop culture treats women (and how she loves songs and shows that she knows she should hate) to the entertainment industry’s failures regarding race, and more, these essays are generally thought provoking, easy to follow and both personal and political. Some are better than others – her essay about her foray into competitive scrabble is probably the most entertaining in the book (though doesn’t have much to do with feminism) and “Tragedy. Call. Compassion. Response.” is an eloquent polemic about the violence of our everyday world. It could easily be updated (it was written in 2011) to address police shootings or recent incidences of mass shootings or, even, the violence of a Trump campaign rally. That’s an essay I’d love to read.

Gay’s essays on pop culture are interesting for her academic approach (she is an associate professor of creative writing at Purdue.) But her writing is much stronger when she weaves her personal experiences into her analysis as she does in many of the essays on race and politics. “The Politics of Respectability” (though it too would benefit from an update to her reliance on Bill Cosby quotes) is fascinating and “The Racism We All Carry” is still timely.

I’ll be honest – I’m not a big fan of essay collections. And Bad Feminist didn’t sway me to change my thinking on that. But there definitely are a number of essays in this collection that raise important questions. And I also like the underlying theme – that we are all imperfect, so even those who strive mightily to be good feminists end up being mediocre or even bad at it. And that’s okay. (That might be a metaphor for this book …)

Posted by: Rita | July 27, 2016

Book Thirty: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way GoneThese are the stories that need to be told, reminders of how conflicts around the world have human-sized tolls. Ishmael Beah is a veteran of such a conflict – a child soldier drafted into a horror beyond imagination.

Many books describe the impact of war and genocide in the nations of Africa – Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire, An Ordinary Man by Paul Russesabigina, This Voice in My Heart by Gilbert Tuhabonye — all depict the brutality of the Hutu slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi in the early 1990s.  But the gristly detail of the inhumanity described by Ishmael Beah in his memoir A Long Way Gone was, for some reason, more disturbing than I expected.

Ishmael was just a child when civil war broke out in the country side of his native Sierra Leone.  After the rebels took over his hometown, he was separated from his family for years, and roamed through forests and small villages with two separate groups of young boys until he was recruited to be a child soldier for the government army.  His time as a child soldier has gotten most of the press attention, but it is his descriptions of what the rebel armies did to civilians that makes this book so disturbing to read. Like the Lost Boys of Sudan, Beah and his friends were displaced because of the brutality of tribe against tribe warfare – they roamed the countryside looking for a ‘safe’ place in a world where nowhere was safe for long.  They watched as villages were burned down, as women and girls were raped, as men were randomly shot in the face.

One of the most poignant and disturbing chapters described how, after many months of separation, Beah learns that his parents and brothers had survived the slaughter in his home village and were living near where he had been staying.  As he walked to their new village, he saw the rebels take over and burn it down.  Beah watched in horror as the place where he imagined he’d have a happy reunion with his family was reduced to ashes.  He missed — literally by minutes — the reunion with his family, and his own certain death.

When Beah was recruited into the government army, he was taught to kill without emotion – assisted in part by the unlimited supply of cocaine and other drugs which inured him to the violence around him.  He was eventually ‘rescued’ by an international aid group and spent many months healing from the trauma of the loss of his mother, his father, his brothers — and his innocence.  He became a spokesman for fighting against the use of child soldiers, and eventually moved to America.

Unfortunately, Beah’s memoir stops a chapter too soon – it describes his reunification with his extended family, his escape to neighboring Guinea by bribing border guards – and then stops abruptly without explaining how he went from being penniless in Guinea, to being a successful, best selling writer in America.  Perhaps he is saving that for the sequel.

NB: Although I have not yet read it, Beah’s recently published novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, has received fabulous reviews. Add that one to your list as well…..

 

devil_horsebackDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” For Brian Steidle, an ex-Marine hired to assist the African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan, witnessing the onslaught of genocide, but being restrained by the rules of engagement from doing anything to stop it, produced a dichotomy.  How could he protest the genocide while serving in a position which precluded him from doing anything to stop it? Steidle’s solution:  The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur.

When Steidle arrived in Sudan in January 2004, he was prepared for the harsh conditions under which he would be required to live, but he was not prepared for what was to come. After spending a few months in the relatively calm Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, Steidle asked for and received a transfer to the Darfur region of western Sudan.  As a member of the African Union peacekeeping force there, he witnessed the beginnings of the genocide that, despite his and others’ efforts to document and bring to the world’s attention, still rages on today.

Steidle is a sharp observer and kept copious notes of the atrocities he witnessed. He went to Darfur with the hope of helping in a desperate situation.  However, his frustration with the ineffectual role of the AU Peacekeepers mounts as he sees villages flattened by fire, babies who have been shot in the back, women who have been gang-raped.  He is appalled as the government of Sudan continues to deny any involvement – despite his personal observations of coordinated efforts between the Janjaweed (which means “devil on horseback” in Arabic) and government forces.  And he is horrified that he is unable to do a thing about it.

It is not until many months after he has returned from Sudan – at the urging of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof – that Steidle begins to formulate his protest of the evil he witnessed. He decides that he has to reject the Omertà of the Marines (and the private contractor who he later works for – which he never identifies by name) and speak out.  He and his sister return to Darfur to work on a documentary (also called The Devil Came on Horseback) and began to write this book.  His prose is appropriately spare – the events he witnessed needed no hyperbole.

In writing this memoir, Brian Steidle does his best to protest against evil. He provides keen insight into the makings of genocide – how indifference by the world to the killing of black Africans perpetuates the violence, how limiting the scope of peacekeeping troops emboldens those who perpetuate evil.  And the genocide continues. Recently, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have warned of ongoing atrocities. And so, still and again The Devil Came on Horseback is relevant for the history it provides.

love in the driest season

So many of the books I’ve been reading/reviewing recently are difficult and sad and devastating. This is a book filled with hope and love — and incredibly poetic prose. A much needed respite….

More than ten million children have been orphaned by AIDS in Africa over the past few decades. Ten million. It is a number that is almost impossible to imagine, unbearable to envision, and virtually hopeless to try to comprehend.

But Neely Tucker, a correspondent for the Detroit Free Press living with his wife in Zimbabwe, finds a way to make the stories of all those orphans more real, simply by focusing on the plight of one of them. Love in the Driest Season tells of a girl-child found abandoned, still blood-and-placenta-encrusted, in the tall brown grass of the Zimbabwean highland, “where rain is a rumor that will not come true for many months.” A local woman rescued the newborn, took her to an orphanage in the capital and named her Chipo (which means “gift.”) For weeks, she lay in a small crib, sick and forlorn, until Mr. Tucker puts out his finger during a tour of the orphanage and Chipo grabs hold.

Mr. Tucker and his wife became Chipo’s lifeline, fighting to save her life as she suffers through pneumonia, dehydration and the all encompassing “failure to thrive.” They then must fight the Zimbabwean bureaucracy to get permission to become foster parents — making weekly treks down to the child welfare offices to cajole, coax and finally charm the overworked and underpaid social workers into approving the paperwork so that they might care for and adopt this abandoned infant.

Interspersed between his graceful descriptions of life with a very ill (though HIV-negative) child, Tucker reports on the political strife of Africa, from the violent civil war in the Congo, to the terrorist attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, to the denigration of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe and the atrocity of the HIV/AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. His fact-laden reportage is missing the elegant prose of his descriptions of his family’s struggles, yet it is clear and precise and compelling.

When they are finally granted permission to adopt Chipo, Tucker and his wife decide to return to the United States where he can savor playing with his daughter in their small backyard, and enjoy “listening to her laughter spill over me like warm summer rain.” In that laughter, there is love and peace and hope.

 

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