Sunday, June 14, 2020

Betsey Brown

Betsey Brown / Ntozake Shange
NY: St Martins, 2010, c1985
192 p.
I came across this book very recently; somehow I'd missed this one altogether when I was looking into Shange's work after first encountering it with Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, some years ago now. This novel also focuses on a young Black woman's experience -- that of Betsey Brown, 13 years old in 1959 St. Louis. 

The story ranges across Betsey's large family, which includes her grandmother and a cousin who live with them, and all the themes of growing up and hitting adolescence -- Betsey has a crush on a baskeball player at school, she finds herself a secret hiding place in a tree to escape from everyone and think, she negotiates friendships and boys. But the story also places these experiences in context -- Betsey and her siblings all face bussing to new schools as school integration takes place. The racism they encounter is shown clearly.

The family itself is complex; Betsey's father is a doctor, but he is also much darker than her mother and grandmother, and her grandmother is continually mentioning it. They are a well off family as things go; one of Betsey's friends has a mother who works as a nanny, and Betsey discovers the realities of class as she shares a story she thinks is funny, about her ability to run off a new nanny her mother hired, and her friend reacts with anger. 

Her parents are both loving and realistic, as they go through some strife. One of the continuous themes is how overwhelmed her mother feels, but also her inability to retain or respect household help. When her mother is gone for a time, the household finds Carrie, a housekeeper who wears a rope for a belt and keeps company with the gardener, but who is also strong and loving and maintains discipline with the rowdy children. Despite Mrs. Brown's dismissal of Carrie when she returns home, Carrie has affected Betsey deeply, and she shares the final pages with Betsey's own mother when Betsey is reflecting on her life. 

The story weaves in and out, it shows shades of everything -- class, race, gender, but is centred in the Black life that Shange is writing from. It has a rhythm that feels like life, a little bit of good and bad, highs and lows, all mixed up together. It's a beautiful, readable book that I whizzed through in one sitting as it caught me both with its characters and style. Shange's style is appealing and has a sense of musical refrain in it somehow, I'm not sure how to describe it. But it's engaging to read and illuminates a point in history that I hadn't really read about before. Recommended. 

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Anti Racist Reading Resources

I've been pretty quiet over here at the blog this week; with everything going on in the US in particular, posting as usual didn't feel like the thing to do. I've been spending most of my time on Instagram, watching and listening, and thought I'd share some resources for self-education on racism and becoming an active anti-racist.

There have been many people and organizations sharing recommended resources this week. Here are a few that I've noted, and will be starting to tackle one by one.



Ibram X. Kendi is frequently cited; it's his book How To Be an Anti Racist that is often quoted. The Chicago Public Library has a lengthy booklist of 61 anti racist titles that all sound like required reading.

Layla F. Saad is the author of Me & White Supremacy, a must read for all white readers. She recommends a few more titles to explore over at The Guardian.


Here in Canada there are also racial issues to confront. The Fold Literary Festival has shared some important Canadian titles on their social media, both nonfiction and some fiction that illuminates the BIPOC experience as well.

Coursera has curated a list of classes you can take, all dealing with anti-racist themes. These are all free classes. And over at Fortune mag, of all places, there is a compilation of resources from books to articles to podcasts to Instagram accounts to follow for more self-learning.

LeadNow.ca is an advocacy non-profit based in Canada, and they've been actively creating a page of resources aimed at Canadians in particular -- there are many relevant books and online articles shared, as well as organizations to support. They're also hosting an Online Teach In on June 11 that you can sign up to attend, which will talk about anti racism, climate justice and a just Covid recovery, all issues that they advocate for.

And the document of Anti-Racist Resources for White People just compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein is lengthy and wide-ranging -- another good source for reading and learning.

I'd encourage you not to buy any of these books on Amazon if possible. Support your local black owned bookstores by checking there first. Here in Ontario you can find relevant bookstores by searching the business directory on ByBlacks.com -- there are 12 listings currently. Or check AfroBiz.ca for your local area. Google black owned business in your region for potential shops to buy from if you are not Canadian.

This is one way I am going to start working actively in my own life. And I'll continue listening.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Elisabeth's Daughter

Elisabeth's Daughter / Marianne Fredriksson
trans. from the Swedish by Anna Paterson
London: Orion, c2002.
217 p.

Katarina is a modern young woman; the last thing she wants is to be tied down. But when she begins an affair with an attractive (and married) American, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, and more unexpectedly, wishing to keep the baby. Her boyfriend, however, does not agree, and violently attacks her, accusing her of trying to trap him, then disappears back to America.

This story explores the idea that violence and abuse are intergenerational, that what a mother experiences, a daughter can too. Or that abusive patterns are passed down in families, to both the perpetrator and victim.

It only partially works.

Frederiksson is a writer whose own views come through very strongly in her writing; the characters are not allowed to open up into strange and complex people, rather they represent what she is trying to say. And here it felt to me like she knew what the conclusion should be so the story was held to those lines.

One of the reasons this didn't really work for me was that, other than the violence Katarina suffers in the opening, there isn't any drama -- she has a supportive family, lots of money, time to recover and work through things with her mother -- they forgive the violent boyfriend easily, her baby isn't harmed, and Katarina's relationship with her mother is resolved neatly. Her brother is also a pastor, so there is lots of scope for Fredriksson's Christian belief to shine through, on forgiveness, on the meaning of life, etc. It's a quiet and insulated story despite the theme.

I didn't agree with some of Fredriksson's statements or conclusions, but more than that, felt that there wasn't any room for a differing perspective in this story. It just rolled along in its track until the vaguely satisfying end. There were a few interesting elements here, and the Swedish setting is strong. But overall this story felt flat to me.

Monday, May 04, 2020

From What Is to What If?

From What Is to What If / Rob Hopkins
White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, c2019
228 p.
This is an uplifting and encouraging book to read in these troubled times. It's an examination of imagination and its role in changing our future together.





There are some disturbing facts in this book: imagination has declined over the past few decades as societies seem to squeeze it out of the education system on purpose. Also, imagination suffers when people are in survival mode, worried about income and stability and so forth -- like our society leaves most of us much of the time. And finally, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reduces our ability for creative thinking; we are hamstringing ourselves at trying to find a solution to problems that we are causing, and making it harder on ourselves to see a way out at the same time. 

But there is possibility as well. Hopkins points out that dystopian futures are kind of the default for our creative output; it's easier and a bit lazy to default to terrible things. Also, there is a human instinct to be fascinated by disaster. However, if we can exercise our imagination and envision possibilities for the future, if we can live in a better future for even a few minutes in our minds, it is far likelier that we will experience hope and a belief in a better world.





The author is a founder of Transition Towns, a movement to more resilient and livable communities, and many examples are given here about how the transition process fosters imaginative community input into the direct environment of a transition town. From food growing and coops to art-based activities, the focus is on life, nature, and the greater good, not just economic development and urban sprawl. If you're interested in learning more about this process, there is a map on their website showing transition towns near you, and also a great toolkit on how to get started

In any case, this book is a great read. It shares successful examples of how communities are making small, local change that is having an impact of community health and resilience -- letting people feel engaged and connected to their communities, allowing people to form connections and feel some agency over their daily lives. And it really focuses on the importance of imagination -- not simply creativity or innovation, which have both been slightly co-opted by business, to refer only to ideas that can be monetized. But imagination, that free-wheeling ability to project yourself into a potential future and throw out a line to help you get there. If you can't picture anything but the current daily grind and the misery that is sure to come, according to most media, then you can't make it happen. The key is to nurture and encourage that "What If?" and "Why not?" thinking.

I think it's very useful to engage with these kind of ideas, and start to think more widely and with more possibility -- What If?


We need to nurture our imaginations, and our ability to create and envision new and resilient actions in the face of climate change and business as usual. This crisis we are all going through now is only one part of the crisis we are facing. Reading this book made me less despondent about the world in general, and it gives both inspiration and practical advice on how to make change. I recommend it, and wish that all those with any power in the world, political or financial, would read it too and take it to heart.

You can listen to a lengthy talk about the book and its ideas below, if you are interested in learning more. 


Friday, April 24, 2020

Old Rose & Silver

Old Rose & Silver / Myrtle Reed
NY: Putnam, c1909.
364 p.
Reading along for my Century of Books project, I picked up a novel by an old favourite, Myrtle Reed. She wrote many romances in the early part of the 20th C. and they are often quite similar: lots of beautiful women, upstanding men, and obstacles (usually in the guise of a younger, flashier woman) in their way. And there are always many philosophical, quoteable passages in her books as well, though some are a little out of date with current thought, not surprisingly. 

In this story we have the "Old Rose", Rose, a spinster of nearly 40 who lives with her aged aunt. She is a lovely, musical, intelligent woman. Then arrives the "Silver", young Isabel, a cousin who is just 20, and is spoiled and flighty, not really interested in books or music or any of the things that Rose and Aunt Francesca love. But she needs a place to stay since her emancipated mother has left her alone again (another common dig at the suffragette, or women's rights trailblazers from this era: Reed doesn't seem to care for them, domesticity is her purview). 

And then, old friends return to their home next door -- Aunt Francesca's old friend Colonel Kent and his violinist son Allison who is 30. Precise ages are very important in this story.

We can see where this story is going, sort of. Allison is torn between his attraction to both Rose and Isabel, and much is made of the fact that Rose is older than him (particularly by Isabel herself). 

But there are other elements to this story. There are a set of 20 yr old twins living nearby, who are uncouth, uncivilized bumpkins, but they are also quite rich thanks to a legacy. They are the comic relief, and the comedic scenes are very broad and rather ridiculous at times. These two have a direct impact on the outcome of the story in ways that seem a little bit of a stretch for the reader. 

This is not the best of Myrtle Reed, but it's still an enjoyable light read. You know that everybody will get their just rewards here, and there are some sweet moments in the book between Rose and Aunt Francesca -- it's nice to see a strong female friendship and not just competitive cattiness. She wrote a few others that I haven't yet read, so those may be in my near future. It's relaxing to read these old romances when your brain is stressed out. 


Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Voyage Out

The Voyage Out / Virginia Woolf
NY: Grafton, 1978, c1915.
382 p.
And now on to Virginia Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out. It's not hard to understand why this one is fairly hard to find in hard copy (my copy, the paperback above, came from my usual sources of secondhand bookshops). It is really not that good. 

You can feel that Woolf is already interested in the themes she continues to explore -- there are long drawn out days of boredom, parties, every shade of interactions explored -- there are also different things like South America, shipboard life, and very strange and emotionally constipated explorations of first love. 

There is also the first appearance of Clarissa Dalloway and her husband Richard, as they hitch a ride on the ship from one Eurpean port to another. The shipboard life was interesting but once the characters arrive in South America and take a house in a spot full of English people, the book became interminable to me. I did finish it, unfortunately -- I have seldom been so angry about an ending that felt ridiculous, unnecessary, and emotionally manipulative. 

So what's the plot? Rachel Vinrace is 24, her father is the ship's captain, and she has been raised as if in a convent -- she is extremely naive, inexperienced and socially awkward. Her aunt and uncle have been asked along on this trip, and it's her aunt (who doesn't particularly like her) who serves as chaperone in South America. There is a hotel full of English and European guests near their house there, and they interact with all the odd characters including a duo of young men, one of whom Rachel falls in love with. 

The repeated scenes with Rachel and Terence acting like they are dimwitted and rhapsodizing about love - are we in love? we are in love. what is love? - etc. were so tiresome and overdone. I am sorry, Virginia, but these characters felt like stage actors in some strange late modernist play. 

Most of the rest of the book focuses on the cast of characters in this hotel; who are they from the outside, from their own inner view, their class, their relationships, their habits of killing time -- everyone seems like they are simply in a waiting room here. The writing shows some brilliance and the roots of much of Woolf's work. But the characters were only middling and I was so bored so much of the time! 

It's the ending that really made this book unforgivable for me. That was what we got for sticking it out? Really? I felt so annoyed by the conclusion, upset and disappointed by where she went. So as you can likely tell by now, this is definitely NOT my favourite Woolf, and in fact I wouldn't recommend it. A novel cut down by half and focusing mainly on the sea voyage would have, in my opinion, been so much stronger. 


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway / Virginia Woolf
NY: Harcourt, 1953, c1925
296 p.
In my recent readings and rereadings of Virgina Woolf, I was inspired to pick this one up again -- the first Woolf I ever read, many years ago -- when there was a readalong on Twitter. I'm so glad I revisited it. 

This is actually the same edition as the one I found on my cousin's bookshelves so very long ago. When I saw it in a second hand bookshop, I knew I had to buy it, since the yellow cover evokes my first experience with it so well. 

It was just as flowing, just as fascinating as the first time I read it, knowing nothing of the book or even Woolf other than that she was an important writer. But this time I also had tons more reading behind me to compare this with, both Woolf's own writings and so many more which influenced and were influenced by her. It made the reading very rich.

From the famous first line: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" to the bittersweet ending, it's a story told like the alighting of a butterfly on different consciousnesses as the narrator's eye sweeps over London. It is like a flowing, continual noticing. Mrs. Dalloway herself likes to have people around her, she's not very self-reflective, and I think the narrative style repeats this: it's about the thoughts, feelings, reactions, interactions of many people, not the interior investigation of one character. Mrs. Dalloway feels only slightly more known by the end than she did at the beginning. I kept thinking back to the appearance of Mrs Dalloway as a young woman in Woolf's The Voyage Out and trying to compare the two versions.

There are so many elements in this book that Woolf repeats throughout her work; the unknowability of others, the awfulness of humanity and bourgeois life, the thoughts and appearance of death and suicide. You can see her thematic and structural interests intersect in all her work. 

This is a beautifully written, poetic book with some very memorable characters, with beauty and sorrow side by side. It richly rewards more than one reading.