Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

green

This is a profound commentary on race, masquerading as a coming of age story of a white boy in a predominantly black middle school in inner city Boston.

Dave has terrible anxiety about navigating 6th grade in his challenged, underfunded public school.  He is not only white, but terribly non-“baller” (non-athletic), wears all the wrong clothing, and is afraid to fight physically to defend himself – a proverbial lamb thrown into the lion’s den.  His unlikely defender comes in the form of a short, khaki-wearing, quiet, intellectual, black, fellow 6th-grader named Marlon, who steps in and ultimately becomes his only friend.  The boys communicate mainly through a common love for the “uncool” Celtics, but they bond on a deeper level of shared temperaments and a common goal of getting into the more prestigious middle school, Latin.  While they do grow close, there are still things that Marlon seems to keep to himself.  And even as Dave feels a victim as a minority in his school, he also very gradually faces the reality, in his own middle school understanding, how he actually gleans privilege with his white skin that Marlon cannot.

The voice utilized in the telling of this story is powerful and symbolic.  It is Dave’s voice yet he has fully adopted the vernacular of his black peers.  He is desperately seeking approval from these peers and needs to speak their language, quite literally.  This language brings a raw and gritty texture to the story which feels so honest.  What are also honest are the characters themselves, as they are real and complex and not stereotypical.  Nor are they predictable – and guides the plot toward its both expected and truly unexpected routes.

This novel is a subtly disturbing commentary on our current state of affairs with regard to race.  The American “dream,” as Dave’s “Cramps” (not a typo) spells out late in the book,  is that if a person works hard enough, they can overcome any obstacle and succeed.  This may be true for some, but the truth is that it is not a level playing field and we have to acknowledge this.  People of color are denied advancement at every level compared to whites.  And although there are many groups who are persecuted — my own (and Dave’s) group included, as the rise of anti-semitic violence has been noted to be staggering over the past few years — there is still not clear, daily aggression and micro-aggression toward these groups as there is toward people of color.  The cards are still stacked against them, and we have to stop denying this and start turning this around.  And the first step is for white people to be aware of and acknowledge our privilege.

Maybe more can be enlightened by reading this book?

 

 

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

becoming

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.

 

This Is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel

this is how it always is

This is the poignant story of a loving family: parents, Rosie and Penn, and their 5 boys; that is, they believed they had 5 boys until the youngest, Claude, declared that he wanted to bring a purse to kindergarten instead of a lunchbox. Gradually, it became clearer that Claude was much happier in dresses than pants and identified more with the princess in his father’s bedtime fairytale than the prince.  While his parents and brothers were accepting of this, they were fearful that people around him were not, and they went to great lengths to protect Claude, who eventually called herself Poppy.  As the story unfolds, we learn that while intentions may be pure, our actions may not be in others’ best interests and over-protection can lead to inadvertent harm.

This is a fictional story, but it has all the markings of a story that is true.   Every character is endowed with a dynamic, vulnerable, and big-hearted quirkiness that makes all of them larger than life.  We come to love each member of this family almost as our own.  The story is enriched with some detail of how Claude/Poppy’s experience affects the other members of the family – as it certainly would – and their own struggles with growing and seeking their own identities.  And most genuinely, Poppy’s struggle is not straightforward – she is not sure what her journey will be like or where it will end.  This is the true meaning of a non-binary identity.  One does not have to be male or female.  While this may be hard for  many to comprehend, it is even harder for others to squeeze themselves into one or the other, and I believe because of that, we all just have to get over ourselves and accept the vast space in-between.

I loved this novel, both for the message within and for the beauty of the story on its own merit.  It is a story of a family dealing with a secret that they learn doesn’t have to be a secret.  It is a story of a family learning to cope with difference, which most families have to deal with on some level, as no one is exactly like anyone else anyway.  And it is a story about love and family bonds that keep a family tied together no matter what.

 

Educated by Tara Westover

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Deep in the hills of Idaho, among the potato farms and tiny villages, poverty reigns over large families like the Westovers, who cling to their Mormon faith for the little bit of truth that they can believe in.  Dad preaches to his children his beliefs that the government is part of a socialist plot to undermine the Lord’s will and public education is just a manifest of this.  So while the older children might have benefitted from having gone to school, the younger ones, Tara being the youngest of those, did not.  So the kitchen where Tara mixes herbs with her mother and the junkyard where Tara sorts metals with her father and brothers become Tara’s classrooms.   And the random, outdated history or mathematics textbooks that left around the house became her only source of book learning, such as it was. Sadly, her emotional learning was blunted by the abuse at the behest of her brother Shawn, and her ability to survive in her home was made possible only by quelling any feeling or reaction to what was going on around her. When she finally did allow herself to feel, she realized there was just too much rage at her whole family to do anything with it.  This was the face of mental illness and this was the face of her family.

This is the true account of the life of Tara Westover – and it’s truly a miracle that all of the children actually survived, especially Tara.  The severity of the neglect and abuse at the hand of her father (and her mother) is staggering.  It is really not entirely their fault, as they clearly are mentally ill – at least her father is severely so.  The most egregiously violent and abusive one, however, is her brother Shawn, who is viciously violent and his parents repeatedly turn a blind eye to his cruelty.

I find that the one I am most angry with by the end of the book, interestingly, is Tara’s mother.  She has so many opportunities to come through for Tara.  There are moments when it appears she just might finally side with Tara.  That she might stand up against Tara’s father, or against Shawn, and say that Tara may be right in accusing Shawn of acting violently toward Tara, or of Dad having mistreated Tara when she was younger, not having given her opportunities or believed her when she was telling the truth (that she was NOT a whore, as she was so often accused of being).   Even later, when her mother had more financial success and independence and might have had a chance to break free and it might have appeared she’d stand up for herself.  But no, she did not.  Such. a disappointment for Tara.  No wonder there was such heartbreak and fury.

The fact that Tara has achieved the success that she has is miraculous and I applaud her intellect and courage.  I only pray for her that she is able to find the support that will allow her to find kindness toward herself that will allow her to heal from all the hurt.

I thank her for sharing her story with all of us.  It has been so powerful.  Mental illness rears its ugly head in so many ways.  Sadly, the worst is toward children.

 

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

bridge of clay

Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, has proven once again to be part writer, part poet, and part craftsman in his newest, breathtaking novel.  The story is about 5 brothers who are raising each other, the parents who raised them first, and the complicated history of how these parents came to be.  It is a story of love and relationships and loss and not really coping and, well, trying to cope;   And while its a bit of an effort to get to know each of the characters at first (as in real life), it’s ultimately well worth the time.

The narrative here is stunning – and must be appreciated for its understated beauty.  There is raw emotion and silence and pain and beauty and love and everything in between that is utterly palpable and with a feeling of air between each word so that the reader has time to experience each of these right there beside each character.  Each word, each sentence is painstakingly chosen and there is poetry on each page of this prose.  By the later chapters, the reader feels the characters are so real that one might just walk in and sit on the couch and watch the bad, 1980’s movies with the boys and tussle with them as they do with each other.  And the love of storytelling by the main character, Clay, allows for the  actual storyteller, Matthew (the oldest brother) to switch gracefully back and forth between the boys’ adventures and the parents’ earlier experiences so that have the privilege of getting to know all of them.

But be warned – it is a slow start and a bit beyond midway it feels like it is finished when it is not.  This book requires patience and calm.  But like most things in life, patience is heartily rewarded here.  I literally could not speak for awhile after reading the ending of this story, feeling absolutely washed over by its utter warmth and love.

This is a masterpiece of subtlety and a very large poem of the heart.

I hope will allow yourself the privilege of loving it as I did.

 

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

rising out of hatred

Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!