Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

This work by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Samori, is a treatise on his experience as a Black man in America.  What Coates is doing here is what so many Black parents in America have needed to do:  encourage their children to be cautious in order to preserve the sanctity and safety of their Black bodies.   As he states on page 129-130, “When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body.  … already you have expectations,…  survival and safety are not enough.”  And “What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body.”  He is sharing his own past struggles as well as those around him, in order to communicate his concern for his son’s safety, while also communicating generally the plight of living in a body of color in this country.

Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock over the last few months, you have to be aware of the uncovering of the ongoing racism that we have been seeing in our country.  I say uncovering because the racism is not new – no, it has been going on since White men arrived on these lands–  but it’s once again being exposed for what it is on a national level.  While I rarely quote in this blog, I find that Coates’ words are far more poetic and useful than my own here.  He says, on page 17,  for example, “To be black… was to be naked before the elements of the world…  the nakedness is the correct and intended result of the policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”  This, I believe, says it all.  This is the institutionalized, ratified, codified racist structure upon which our country was built.  It began with the enslavement of a people, evolved into a Jim Crow structure and now exists in the form of a criminal “justice” system that is an entirely purposeful perpetration of a racist segregation of people based on the color of their skin.  It’s all the same thing.

And it is our obligation to blow this apart.

I’m still struggling with how we, as individuals can make a difference, but the very first step is understanding how deeply entrenched the problem is.  This takes looking both inward at our own implicit biases, which we all have, and examining the structural racism upon which our country has been erected.  Understanding the deeply rooted fear of a child for his own bodily security, and then as he grows, for the safety of his peers and then for the safety of his children, as Coates relays here, gives an up-close-and-personal view of what it is like to live in his skin.  We feel his terror and we feel his rage over having to feel that terror.  This is where we start.

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.

 

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

What would it be like to quit your job and spend a year studying wine?  No, I mean, really studying it – not just drinking it.  Learning how to appreciate the various aromas, textures, degrees of alcohol, tannins, and acidity and be able to blind taste them and name the grape, the label and the year it was made without peeking at the label!  What might it be like to hang with the sommeliers of New York’s finest restaurants to learn what is considered important in the service of these wines?  Or to research where all these crazy, lofty ways of describing wines came from.  Well, Bianca Bosker has done this and she’s been kind enough to share her journey with us in the pages of Cork Dork.

In her quest to become a sommelier, Bosker smells everything in her kitchen in her home and in her city.  She insinuates herself in the world of the sommelier by befriending a top somm who brings her to blind tastings and allows her to witness the training that each somm puts themself through.  Trailing other waiters, working in a wine cellar in a restaurant, getting to taste a vast quantity of fancy and less than fancy wines, Bosker widens her scope of experience very quickly.  She travels around the country and around the world in this quest, visiting restaurants, vineyards, and scientists who help her understand how she can best go about understanding and perfecting her art.

What makes a good wine good?  What makes a good sommelier good?  What makes a good wine description good?  These are questions she seeks to answer during the course of the book and she seeks out answers from many different sources.  Throughout the whole time, she is studying and practicing and honing her tasting and olfactory skills, trying to prep for the certification exam.  And while she learns, so do we, as she sketches out for us her findings.

I do have to confess, that I do think some of the descriptions are bullshit, as she even cops to; however, I do respect the devotion and the obsession that the sommelier does have to go through to become certified in this field.  And now I have a newfound appreciation of exactly what that entails!

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.

 

 

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

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It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.

 

 

 

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro, an author of both fiction and memoirs, has agreed to her husband’s request to both send off their saliva specimens to Ancestry.com – quite on a lark.  Just a curiosity – something she could have just as easily decided not to do.  The results, however, turned her world upside down.  This is her true story of the fallout from that single decision.

Spoiler alert:  If you don’t want to know anything more and you might read this book, please don’t read on.

What Shapiro learns is that her father is actually not her biological father.  The person she felt closest to, proudest of, particularly with regard to her heritage – as he’d come from a line of well-respected, learned, Orthodox rabbis – was actually not related to her biologically.  On the other hand, the mother with whom she had a strained, even fearful relationship, was.  And this rocked her world.

While I cannot fully relate to the situation, I have to admit that I had a hard time completely sympathizing with the author. Yes, this must have been a shock and yes, it must have thrown her.  But when she repeatedly referred to this as a “trauma,” I could not help feeling as if this was melodramatic.  The word, trauma, I believe, has become so over-used that its potency has become diluted.  Her year of worrying about her son with a near-fatal disease – THAT was traumatic, I’m sure.  This discovery about her father, I do not think rises to the level of trauma.  And while I agree, to live in a family with secrets was not ideal, it was certainly not uncommon at that time.  The 1950’s and 1960’s were fraught with a different philosophy about what was appropriate to discuss with children.  To apply today’s standards to what was standard then is unfair.

I also thought that this story might have been told in a much shorter format – such as an article in the New Yorker, for example.  As a full-length memoir, it was somewhat drawn out and sometimes actually dull. I was waiting for something truly extraordinary to happen and it did not.  What did begin to capture my interest was her discussion about the Farris clinic, the infertility clinic in Philadelphia where her mother was inseminated.  The doctor went rogue, was practicing without a license, and inventing new techniques in infertility treatments.  Some were actual advancements and some were truly unethical and this would have been fascinating to explore further.  Unfortunately, there was only limited exploration of this clinic and details were doled out sparingly.  This is where I was hoping the story would lead.

All in all, I was left somewhat disappointed.  I’m curious to hear what others think…!

 

 

Button Man by Andrew Gross

After tragedy hits the poor, struggling, immigrant Rabishevsky family, the 3 remaining sons struggle to find a way back to normalcy.  Each copes in his own way, but it seems that Morris, the baby, is the one with the most strength.  When challenged, it is Morris who doesn’t back down.   But when all his competition in the garment business is being ensnared by the Jewish mobsters’ union scam, will Morris and Raab Brothers be able to continue to resist? How brave is he really?  And whom will he put at risk if he does?

This novel is not only compelling, but, to my surprise, is based on a true story.  It is beautifully told, building the plot’s suspense as we come to know each of the characters more intimately and then twisting it into knots.  It is full of the unexpected, starting with Jewish strong-armed bodyguards to crazy  action-packed crime scenes. But there are many tender scenes as well.  And my favorite lines during one of these is this:  “When you’re scared, you’re nothing but a prisoner…but the moment you decide to stand up, become brave, you’re free.  Free of everything that holds you back…  You don’t have to think about it anymore.”  This is a brilliant line.  Hard to live by, but I guess something to strive for.

There are a. number of themes that wrap around the main character, Morris, and weigh him down throughout his life., but most dramatically it is the idea of not being able to forgive.  In Morris’s case, it becomes somewhat blinding, and later, when he realizes his error, he is crippled with guilt.  It is a powerful message, that is probably universal.  So many of us – myself included — carry grudges against those who have wronged us or who have wronged someone close to us.  It is extremely hard to let go.  Maybe impossible.  But whom are we harming when we don’t?  This story gives us pause to challenge our own difficult relationships.

I’d love to hear other themes or  that you’ve found in this book.  Please comment and add to this entry!

Thanks for reading!

 

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

If you have ever wondered what it feels like to be depressed or to have a panic attack – read this book.  In it, Matt Haig shares his experience with depression and anxiety and invites you straight into his brain.  You sit there with him at the brink of suicide,  you hold your breath as he wrestles with his demons and you ache with his pain. He chronicles his years of experiencing depression and anxiety and actually comes to a sort of peace with it, ultimately, seeming to acknowledge that it has led him to feel things more deeply in both directions, whether toward pain or toward joy.

I think this is an important book to read.  While nothing can ever really give anyone a perfect picture of what it feels like to have depression – and I’m sure it feels different for each individual who experiences it – this does, I believe, give a vivid, repetitive, and detailed description.  There are analogies, lists, comparisons, images, and examples of ways in which the author’s life was impaired by his illness that go beyond what most expect from what we think of depression.  His was particularly severe.

And I think it’s important that we as members of our society, such as it is today, familiarize ourselves as much as possible with the symptoms of depression and anxiety because it is, sadly,  so prevalent.  We need to be aware of how severe it can be, how invisible it can be, and how crippling it can be.  We also must learn how to help someone who is suffering with it.  There are suggestions in this book, which are quite helpful.

On the negative side, I believe this book was not well edited.  I found t grammatically lazy, somewhat repetitive, and missing large chunks of the story.  How does Matt actually get better?  Just time?   When does he get married?  And where do the two kids come in?  What role do his parents play really in his recovery?  There is so much that is glossed over  How has he been able to write through the depression?  What does he write about?

I like the philosophical tangents – there is a great amount of wisdom and helpful advice for others with depression and anxiety and for those who may be around those who suffer.  And I do think this book is an important read.  I wish the actual writing  had been given a bit more attention…

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

 

Every time I tell myself that I cannot read another Holocaust story because they are just too painful, another one comes along and lures me into its grasp. This one was another such story…

Lale, from Slovakia, volunteered in 1942 to work for the Germans in order to save his family from being deported (or so he was told). He, along with a cavalry of other young, fit men, were loaded onto cattle cars, given no food or water for days, and then unloaded onto the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On that very first day, he vowed to himself that he would survive, so that he could bear witness to the unimaginable cruelty that he and his fellow Jews (and others) were experiencing at the hands of the Germans. Lucky for him, he was picked out by the tattooist to be an apprentice and he became the main tattooist in the camp, making himself useful to the Germans. And in this hellhole of hate, Lale manages to not only inspire hope in others, but he manages to find love as well. His story is nothing short of miraculous.

I believe that the important message to take away from these stories of history is two-fold. I do believe that it reminds us to keep our eyes open – this can, indeed happen again. Not only has anti-semitism risen, but hatred for anyone who is “other” is so obviously rising (just look at the daily tweets from our so-called president). So we have to be vigilant, speak out, and vote for those who will be inclusive and bring people together.

But the other message I think this story highlights is that kindness wins. Lale shared the food he managed to procure with so many — and he was loved – and actually rewarded, in turn, for his thoughtfulness. He risked his life for others and when he could, he saved lives. He befriended everyone, no matter who they were. He became particularly friendly with the Romany – the Gypsies – who lived next to him for a time. Because he was curious and not judgmental, he became close to them and benefitted from their friendship as well. Through so many close calls and suspenseful moments, it was acts of kindness that enabled him to survive – his kindness and kindness from others. Kindness wins.

This is a remarkable story. Worth the read!

My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody

my-name-is-mahtob

Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field.  Have you seen it?

It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob.  They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran.  This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America.  He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him.  They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.

I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it.  And now here is the epilogue…

This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself.  She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents.  She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start.  She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran.  But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time.  And that’s when she learned to hate.

What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran.  This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives.  And the impact spread to everyone around them.

Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience  to advocate for others in this situation.  She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed.  And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting  many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.

This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe.  It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a  terrifying combination.

It  brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well.  It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

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When Michelle Obama was quite young, she began to learn to play the piano, taught by her very strict aunt who lived downstairs.  The piano on which she studied and practiced had chips and imperfections that enabled her always to find the middle C, sort of grounding her and guiding her.  When she had her first formal recital, she suddenly found herself seated at a perfect, symmetric and distinctly un-chipped piano, and had to pause and figure out what to do to find her way.  With the help of her teacher/aunt, she managed to steady herself and to play her piece with great success.  This became a sort of metaphor for her life.  Michelle Obama has always worked hard, relied on important mentors to guide her, and whenever she encountered obstacles, she leaned on those she loved and who loved her to help her regain her center of gravity and succeed in a dramatic fashion.

Mrs. Obama’s story is a rags to riches story in some ways, but in many ways it is not.  It is true that she was raised in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and she may not have had much in the way of what money could buy.  On the other hand, however, she was rich in the ways that really mattered.  She had a loving family with mother, father and brother and many extended family members who were quite close and affectionate.  Her mother strongly advocated for her so that she was able to access an excellent education, which enabled her to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School, where she was able to raise her financial standing, in spite of where she came from.  She acquired an incredibly strong work ethic and was generous about helping others come along with her, rather than stepping on others to get ahead.  Her constant mission was to find mentors to assist her with moving forward, but also to then pay it forward and mentor others in return.  And each position that she held after her first job out of law school helped her to dive deeper and deeper into fields in which she could do good for others, which seemed to always be her driving force.

The discouraging part for me, of course, is the contrast between what was then and what is now.  The Obama’s were devoted to their country, both working so very hard to try to make things better for the people they were serving, both working to expand human rights, to give access to health care, to create jobs and improve the environment and to promote peace.  Barack Obama surrounded himself with wise advisers and listened to the advice of others and was thoughtful and respectful to others and read incessantly to learn as much as he could about an issue so that he could make the most informed decision.

Sadly, this is not what is happening in our White House now.

So while this book was inspiring, it was also quite sad, as it reminded me of what we’ve lost since 2016.

The Obamas were smart, dedicated to our country and to humanity, and were a class act.   I hope we find our way back to this again.