Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sylvia and Aki (children's book)

  “Sylvia and Aki” by Winifred Conkling is the true story of two American girls of different cultural backgrounds who grew up in the 1940s in the United States of America.
     The narrative is attuned to their joys, fears, dreams and loving families, and it reveals how their happy childhoods were disrupted by the evils of segregation, discrimination and social injustice. Unexpected challenges and hardship threatened the well-being of their families and their future.

  There is an afterword that gleans relevant historical facts and relates them to the lives of the characters. We can learn a lot from history; literature offers us unique opportunities to do so.

   I highly recommend “Sylvia and Aki”. It is a book that invites us to honor friendship, learn about history and spend quality time with our children.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Still I rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room?

Just like moons and suns
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hope springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Digging in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Saturday, October 1, 2016

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

I’ve already described some of the outstanding qualities of Margaret Atwood’s oeuvre: ingenious satire and social insight along with well developed characters and plots.
 In "The Handmaid’s Tale" the United States of America is taken over by fundamentalist Christians. Under the new regime women are not allowed to read, work or think. They are only expected to obey  the rules that powerful men create. Women are forced to reproduce. The dissidents are severely punished.
  As part of this regime there is an underworld in which rich privileged men use women as a source of entertainment. When a woman is raped they say that she deserves it; it is God's plan.  Margaret Atwood wrote this book in the 1980s, yet it appears to be of relevance today.


  White women in America earn 75 % of what white men make; African American women make 63 %, even with the same level of education and experience; Latina women only make 54% of what white males earn. These figures show clearly that gender and ethnic discrimination go hand in hand.

 We all deserve the same respect, dignity and consideration. (And, by the way, if you don't like to hear a woman yelling, then don't excuse a man for doing so, even if he is white and American).

 If you want to understand how unconscious and conscious biases determine the way women are judged and treated differently I recommend the well researched book by Iris Bohnet: “What Works: gender equality by design.” In addition to exploring  the complexity and consequences of these biases through concrete examples, she proposes solutions to this important issue.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"The Japanese Lover" by Isabel Allende

There are many love stories in this novel by Isabel Allende, but it was not the title that attracted me to it. The hook was the first chapter. It narrates the story of Irina, a young woman from Moldova who is hired to work at Lark House, an imaginary nursing home located in California.

  Irina bonds with the residents of Lark House because she is kind, sensitive and caring. After an unexpected turn of events, Irina is also hired to work a few hours a week for Alma, one of the residents.

  Both Irina and Alma harbor secrets that hold the suspense of the novel till the end.

 Even though they had different backgrounds, Alma and Irina had something in common: they’d both migrated to America under difficult circumstances.  Alma had moved to the United States from Poland at age seven when her Jewish parents, terrified by the rise of Nazism, sent her to live with her uncle and aunt in America. During her childhood she met Ichimei, a family friend with whom she fell in love.

   The story is narrated from an omniscient point of view. The present and past moments of their lives alternate and the writer paints the intimate landscapes of the characters’ thoughts and emotions. We also get to know the Japanese lover through the letters that he wrote to Alma.

 This novel encouraged me to learn more about American history. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese government in 1941 President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. On the West Coast of the United States of America thousands of American citizens of Japanese background were detained and sent to concentration camps for no other reason than their race. Their bank accounts and possessions were confiscated by the government.

The Japanese had to quickly sell off whatever they owned at knockdown prices, and to close their businesses. They soon discovered that their bank accounts had been frozen; they were ruined.”
“By August, more than a hundred and twenty thousand men, women and children would be evacuated, old people snatched from hospitals, babies from orphanages, and mental patients from asylums. They would be interned in ten concentration camps in isolated areas of the interior, while cities would be left with phantom neighborhoods full of empty homes and desolate streets, where abandoned pets and the confused spirit of the ancestors who had arrived in America with the immigrants wandered aimlessly.”

 I think this is a relevant reminder of how hate speeches fueled by fanaticism, racism and economic hardship do have consequences. Nevertheless, those consequences were presented under the veil of censorship.
It was a temporary solution and would be carried out in a humane fashion. This was the official line, but meanwhile the hate speech spread. ‘A snake is always a snake, wherever it lays its eggs. A Japanese-American born of Japanese parents, brought up in a Japanese tradition, living in an atmosphere transplanted from Japan, inevitably and with only rare exceptions grows up as Japanese and not American. They are all enemies.’ It was enough to have a great-grandfather born in Japan to be seen as a snake.”

  Another important subject that this novel touches is that of sex trafficking and forced prostitution. This cruel horrifying “business” is one of the most profitable in the world, and it makes me wonder why it has not been eradicated yet. Is it because there are many “customers” out there who are willing to pay for sex slaves? Is it because society is too busy slut-shaming victims instead of helping them?

    This novel is about love, friendship and trust, and what I enjoyed the most about it is that the author merged the political and social aspects of it with the personal lives of the characters. The end is bittersweet, a reflection on the timelessness and endurance of love.

Friday, January 15, 2016

"God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" by Kurt Vonnegut

“Creativity takes courage.” Henri Matisse

When I learned that “God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater” by Kurt Vonnegut had been banned I knew I had to read it. This thought-provoking satirical novel bristles with social commentary.

 Inspired by the stories of a visionary speculative fiction writer Eliot Rosewater, a millionaire, decides to invest time and money in helping anyone who asks for help. He believes that love is what everybody needs, so he is willing to be loyal to his ideal. Mr. Eliot Rosewater was also an alcoholic.
 “And Eliot Rosewater became a drunkard, a utopian dreamer, a tinhorn saint, an aimless fool.”

 Before he decided to devote his life to helping others he tried psychoanalysis, but his therapist gave up on him because he considered him untreatable.
I ask him what he dreams about and he tells me Samuel Gompers, Mark Twain and Alexander Hamilton. I ask him if his father ever appears in his dreams and he says ‘No, but Thorstein Veblen often does.’”

  Despite Eliot’s humility and well-intentioned motives he was harshly criticized. A greedy lawyer called Norman Mushari wanted to prove that Eliot Rosewater was insane to take advantage of his wealth.
 “The more Mushari rifled the firm’s confidential files relative to the Rosewater Foundation, the more excited he became. Especially thrilling to him was the part of the charter which called for the immediate expulsion of any officer adjudged insane. It was common gossip in the office that the very first president of the Foundation, Eliot Rosewater, the Senator’s son, was a lunatic. The characterization was a somewhat playful one, but as Mushari knew, playfulness was impossible to explain in a court of law.  Eliot was spoken of by Mushari’s co-workers as “the Nut”, “The Saint”, “The Holy Rotter”, “John the Baptist”, and so on.

 I can’t deny that the cynical aspects of the book can make the read hard to bear. Yet I believe that there is foresight in this story. Kurt Vonnegut was able to anticipate the submission of humanity to mindless technology and wars, as you may conclude from this insightful quote:
“In time almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering and probably medicine, too. So -- if we can’t find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.”

 Eliot Rosewater’s father, a Republican Senator, was ashamed and embarrassed. He compared his son’s universal love to toilet paper.

 Why was this book banned and ignored?

I don’t know. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Eliot Rosewater was kind without being religious. It may also be related to comments that defy the status quo. This one, for instance:
Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up…”

Read this novel yourself and draw your own conclusions.

It was interesting to start reading “The American Way of Poverty” by Sasha Abramsky after I finished “God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater”. This non-fiction book helps us to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between Vonnegut’s fiction and reality.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Metamorphosis and other stories


“Shall I tell you what I think are the two qualities of a work of art? First, it must be the indescribable and second, it must be inimitable.” Renoir

 This quote puts into words what I felt when I read “The Metamorphosis” and other stories by Franz Kafka.  I will only discuss his most famous story here: “The Metamorphosis”.
 I will refrain from writing about the other tales in this collection. Suffice it to say that there are situations and experiences in life that cannot be explained. Yet they find a way to be expressed in Kafka’s tales.

 The Metamorphosis is the comical account of a man who transforms into an insect.

 “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.”

Even his voice changed:
 "It was unmistakably his own voice as of old, but mixed in with it, as if from below, was an irrepressible painful squeaking and this only left the sound of the words clear for a moment, before distorting them so much that one could not tell if one had heard them properly.”

 Interestingly, Gregor was not concerned about the changes he’d undergone but about the fact that he had to get ready to go to work. He knew that if he did not take the train on time he would be in trouble.  He was right.  The chief clerk came to his house to admonish him.
 The possibility of losing his job waylaid his future even though he had not missed a day at work for five years.
 The lack of trust in him surfaces and he reflects on it:
Why on earth was Gregor condemned to work for a firm where the slightest lapse immediately gave rise to the gravest suspicion? Were all the employees, then, scoundrels to a man; was there not one loyal, dedicated worker among them, when the mere failure to devote an hour or two to the firm one morning was enough to drive crazy with remorse,-- so much so that he was actually incapable of getting out of bed? Would it really not have been enough to send an apprentice round to inquire—assuming all this chasing up to be necessary at all? Did the chief clerk really have to come in person, so demonstrating to the whole innocent family that the investigation of this suspicious affair could be entrusted to his wisdom alone?"

  The chief clerk was not in the least worried about Gregor’s medical condition but about the fulfillment of his duties:
“ Her Samsa,” the chief clerk now called out, raising his voice, “what’s the matter with you? Here you are barricading yourself in your room, giving only yes or no for an answer, causing your parents a great deal of unnecessary anxiety, and besides -- I merely mention this in passing – neglecting your duties towards the firm in a positively outrageous manner.”

    The interactions with his family and his surroundings are carefully carved. They are rich in nuances about Gregor’s new existence.
Gregor was worried about his family responsibilities, but not about his identity. Although he had to endure the consequences of being an insect I could not find a single line stating that he was willing to return to his previous condition. He even began to enjoy it:
In particular he enjoyed hanging from the ceiling; it was quite different from lying on the floor; one could breathe more freely, one felt a faint pulsation through the whole of one’s body, and in Gregor’s state of almost contended distraction up there it could happen to his own surprise that he let himself go and fell smack on the floor. But now, of course, he had his body under much better control than before and even when falling from such a height he did himself no damage.”

What is Franz Kafka telling us in “The Metamorphosis”?

  I believe “The Metamorphosis” is a clever allegory. This humorous tale portrays the experience of being an independent thinker.
  Changes are transformative.  “The Metamorphosis” symbolizes those changes that somebody who is open to learning is expected to accept. However, independent thinkers are often vilified, derided, ridiculed, belittled, misunderstood and even ignored.

 If you are drawn to surreal literature and allegories you may want to read “The Tent”, a collection of stories by Margaret Atwood. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Stone Mattress

 Margaret Atwood’s writing cast a spell on me again.
 These stories have the satirical wit of Kurt Vonnegut, the enchanting stream of consciousness of James Joyce, the insightful ingenuity and visionary power of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Her prose exudes the deep understanding of the human soul that writers like Grazia Deledda and Kate Chopin had, but the tales in "Stone Mattress" are fresh. They are enmeshed in the problems that assail humanity today.

  There is something unique about her style and the details she displays to portray her characters. She makes you believe you’ve met them in person, and there are comments on matters that are ignored by the modern writers of the establishment. 

  The stories in this collection take place in Canada and the United States of America. The same characters are followed over time through a succession of tales. In doing this, she exposes the changes of the society in which they live. Some of the situations made me drown in laughter.

  Whether you like her main characters or not is not important because she kindles our empathy. There are many twists that render the read agile and adventurous.

 I will share Ursula Le Guin’s surreal description of “Stone Mattress”:
“Dances of the dark swamps of Horror on the wings of satirical wit… Look at these tales… as eight icily refreshing arsenic Popsicles followed by a baked Alaska laced with anthrax, all served with impeccable style and aplomb. Enjoy!”

Saturday, January 2, 2016

“I” and My Mouth and Their Irresistible Life in Language

It is refreshing to read Susan Parenti’s poetry collection in this era of oppressive shallowness. Her poetry pokes fun at our ego-driven society and unfurls the layers of social hypocrisy and discrimination while it incites us to rejoice in the spirit of friendship and the glorious moments of everyday life. 
 She bolsters our confidence to speak up through the arts.
 Her verses are the voice of a free spirit who is not afraid of questioning the rigidity of social conventions. She asks questions and exposes the absurd side of reality, impelling us to revisit it from new perspectives and acknowledging that personal experience is our best teacher.
I will take the liberty to share one of her poems:

You think your luck will come in the form of a grant or award,
with successful prestigious people doing what they can do: confer prestige;
that your luck will wear the face of cameras, or dollar amounts, your name
on the door: Professor______ , your name in the newspapers, on people’s lips.
You think your luck will look these ways.

Thus you look around for your luck, and, not seeing the form you think it will take,
say, I have No Luck.

The picture, Der Niesen, by Klee, 1915, blue mountain and colored trees,
stands on the wall.

But your luck has taken other forms:
friends, parks in your neighborhood given to you as a legacy from
far-thinking predecessors, ideas, a group spirit, the ability to feel so
glad at reading a playful sentence, a talent at love.

Your luck sits in the room with you; you don’t notice.
Goes with you each day; you don’t recognize it.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year

  Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" was censored in the 1800s. I cannot help but wonder about the rigid mindset that banned this inspiring poem. It is now considered the ethos of the United States of America. “Song of Myself” is a celebration of diversity, equality, joy and life. In other words it is about love.

“I celebrate myself and sing myself, and what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…

You can read the full poem here.