Bookends: August 2020

Parsley hoping some swallowtail butterflies will visit.

As September begins, our county has just been downgraded from the “widespread” to the “substantial” tier of COVID-19 presence, which means some indoor things are opening back up again, some schools are starting in-person instruction, and I’m having flashbacks to June and the weeks preceding a huge jump in cases that put us on the state’s watch list this summer. September, it seems, is the new June, which means October will likely be the new July, and all of that means my family is trying to get our few errands done and then hunker down again before things get worse. But that’s actually okay by me because I’ve realized this month that I don’t miss people. There’s a handful of people I’d not mind seeing and even fewer with whom I actually go out of my way to interact via phone or video chat, but I have no desire to go back to any of the casual, in-the-course-of-business interactions that I spent so much time and energy on pre-pandemic. It turns out I really like spending all of my time with my favorite people, which is quite lucky.

As you might have guessed, during the time I spend not going places and not practicing small-talk, I’ve been reading. As a change of pace, and inspired by Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub (which I have not yet finished), I’m going to try saying a little more about the books I’ve finished this month rather than just listing the titles. We’ll see how that goes.

Finished in August (14):

1607: A New Look at Jamestown by Karen Lange

1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace

Blood on the River: James Town, 1607 by Elisa Carbone

The Winter People by Joseph Bruchac

A Voice of Her Own by Kathryn Lasky

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

El Deafo by Cece Bell

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Treasure Forest by Cat Bordhi

On the Back of a Buffalo: Eastern Stories for Western Journey by Nobuaki Hanaoka

Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster

Mostly this month I’ve been reading books for my kids’ homeschool curricula. My son and I read about the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, both historical (1607: A New Look at Jamestown) and fictional (Blood on the River), and about the myths and facts of the first Thanksgiving (1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving). Both 1607 and 1621 were almost as much ads for their respective historical reenactment parks as they were historical overviews of the time period, but Blood on the River offered a little more. In it, twelve-year-old Samuel Collier struggles with the challenges of childhood and coming of age while also confronting the dangers of being on the vanguard of English colonial efforts in the Americas, the sometimes deadly pettiness of class divisions and political infighting, and the mistreatment and slaughter of native peoples with whom he’s built trust and, in some cases, friendship. It offers a dramatic look at early English settlement of North America from a more balanced perspective than in the books I read as I child.

The Winter People offers a similarly complicated look at the later colonial period but through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Saxso, an Abenaki boy who must try to defend his family when their French mission village is attacked by the British. Joseph Bruchac does an excellent job illustrating Saxso’s internal struggle and his village’s efforts to survive not just physically but culturally against the backdrop of religion, racism, and European conflicts imported to North America. I read this novel rooting for Saxso and his family but also very much aware that neither the French nor the British are going to offer a solution that involves peaceful coexistence and cultural respect. My children complain that reading about the colonial period is depressing; I’m apt to agree. It certainly triggers my existentialism and makes any happy ending bittersweet.

My son and I also read A Voice of Her Own, Kathryn Lasky’s biography of poet Phillis Wheatley, which is a fairly good children’s book with the exception of Lasky’s problematic use of the term “enslavement” to describe the American colonies’ relationship to the English crown during the 1770s. It introduces not only Wheatley’s perspective on her life as shared through her poetry, but also the contradictions in the way she was treated as a woman of letters who was at the same time the legal property of the Wheatley family. An especially powerful scene is when Phillis has to sit at tea in the home of the man who was responsible for tearing her away from her home and family and bringing her into slavery in Massachusetts.

This is a challenge I have with teaching my children more balanced stories about history. A lot of history is profoundly ugly and painful, and while I want to be honest and certainly see little if any point in perpetuating the myths surrounding the founding of our country, I don’t want to traumatize my children or leave them with only the worst stories. I want to highlight both the struggle and the hope. One of the books we read together this month does an excellent job of balancing these elements. In Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Kwame Mbalia weaves together a rivalry between African gods and the mythology of the African diaspora with references to the history and legacy of enslavement to create a new kind of story, one that respects the stories of the past while embracing the power of creating stories for the future. It’s written in a way that much middle-grade adventure fiction is written—like the author has crafted discrete pieces of narrative and then set them like boxes one next to the other, sometimes leaving the seams visible—but this is more a pet peeve of mine with the genre rather than one specific to this novel. I’m interested to see how Mbalia’s writing evolves in the later books in the series.

My son and I also read El Deafo, Cece Bell’s graphic semi-memoir about losing her hearing as a young child. Both my husband and I have family members who lost their hearing from illness as Bell did, and, also like Bell, each grew up mainstreamed with hearing children, wearing hearing aids, reading lips, and doing speech therapy. Hanging out with my cousin when we were children, her hearing was always a non-issue. I knew she had to take her hearing aids off to swim and that meant that when she competed, they tapped her ankle to let her know when the race began, and I knew that she had an accent when she spoke that was different from the rest of the family’s, but I never really considered the challenges she might not have mentioned.

The last book my son and I shared this month was Radium Girls by Kate Moore. I saw that a Young Readers edition was coming out this fall, but I wanted to read it this month, so I took a gamble on reading the original with my eleven-year-old. He’s pretty squeamish, but the story, with its blatant injustice and the callousness of the radium companies’ higher-ups, captured his attention and got him past the gory parts. It helped that the photos were all in black-and-white. I also found the story riveting in a way that not much nonfiction grabs me, and especially not courtroom drama.

Amazingly, I also found time to read a few books for myself amidst all of the homeschool reading. First was The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, for which I’d waited with varying degrees of patience for months. I really enjoyed her Station Eleven, and while the writing in The Glass Hotel was gorgeous and the imagery and characters nuanced and rich (in multiple senses), the Ponzi scheme just didn’t really grab me. I’ll definitely be looking for more by St. John Mandel. I want to see what else she applies her writing skill to.

I followed Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad all month, dutifully responding to the prompts for 28 evenings, reflecting on white supremacy culture and my role in it. The book has some of the same shortcomings that a lot of writings about white supremacy culture have, most notably the kind of catch-22 of how white people are supposed to step aside to allow BIPOC voices to be heard but they’re also supposed to stand up and speak up, how white people are tainted by the original sin of their race, beneficiaries of racial privilege that they possess whether they choose it or not, followed by the admonition that white people must relinquish their privilege to be true allies. These contradictions have needled me in the past and continued to do so as I journaled my way through the first couple of weeks of Saad’s book until I realized that what seem like contradictions are really just people trying to figure out in real time what needs to happen to keep the momentum we seem to have now, to keep from falling back into complacency and maybe make change that will be lasting. No one has definitive answers for what the next steps should be for the United States as the country continues to wrestle with the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy, and my mistake has been in expecting that Saad (or Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X. Kendi or Jesmyn Ward or Ta-Nehisi Coates) would have those answers. The prompts in the book are to get me thinking, but the work of coming up with next steps is up to me as an individual and to us as a collective culture. That is where the real strength of Saad’s book lies, I think. Visiting the questions and prompts with intention each evening of the month gave me the space and time necessary to make connections I hadn’t made before. The last two days of prompts challenge the reader to consider real, tangible steps they can take in the coming weeks, and I was surprised to find that I approached that challenge with trepidation but without resistance.

It helped that I read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me during the first couple of weeks I worked on Saad’s book. Solnit’s essays weren’t really anything new to me, but reading them alongside Me and White Supremacy helped me see similarities between the fight against white supremacy and issues with which I was familiar in feminist thinking. The biggest aha for me was when I realized that the “Not All Men” argument used in response to women coming forward with stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault comes from the same kind of thinking that fuels white exceptionalism. Seeing this similarity helped me see both feminism and anti-racism as connected in ways that I’d not fully appreciated before. It makes me want to go back and read Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider again. I think it would be even more significant now that this connection has clicked for me.

There was also an unexpected overlap between Cat Bordhi’s Treasure Forest and Nobuaki Hanaoka’s On the Back of a Buffalo, both of which deal with reality, impermanence, and seeking truth (although I suppose nearly any human story can be distilled down to the nature of reality, impermanence, and the search for truth). These two books—one a middle-grade novel and the other a comparison of Buddhist and Christian thought—explore these issues in ways that brought me comfort. I tend to comfort myself by thinking about being somewhere else, but the reality of a global pandemic has made it more difficult to imagine a greener pasture right now. It’s a good time to be reminded of the forest within and that I can visit it just by paying attention, no mask or hand sanitizer required.

And that leaves just one last book I read this month: E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, which I expected to be dry and academic but which turned out to be a series of lectures about the many ways in which Forster loves novels. I especially love that Forster doesn’t just love one kind of novel; he loves them all for different reasons, and he loves to tell about those reasons. For Forster, novels are a possible path towards positive change for our species. Novels are all different mirrors humanity can hold up to itself, and if we look long enough and carefully enough, maybe we’ll come to figure out some answers about ourselves.

To-Read for September:

My Litsy #bookspin list, including several titles from the Build Your Library U.S. History and literature curricula we’re doing for homeschool, is below:

You can see my Litsy profile for status updates throughout the month and to see the image of my reasonably successful #bookspinbingo card for August.

What’s on your TBR stack for September?

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