Thought-Provoking Nonfiction (A Quartet of Thoughts)
As you might have noticed, I’m waaaay behind on reviews. And as I continue to read awesome books in March, the only way out of the dilemma that I can see is to review more than one book in a post! First up are no less than four non-fiction titles that I found easy to read and that really made me think: Loot by Sharon Waxman, The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron, and Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. As always, you can see a ridiculous number of notable passages at the bottom of the post, but those are really for me, so don’t feel obliged to read them!
Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient Worldby Sharon Waxman
This was my second Art History Challengev pick, and I’m so glad I read it. It’s a quite recent book, published in the States in October of last year, which I think helped greatly in making such a twenty-first century topic even more relevant. Waxman discusses events from 2008, and I felt on the cutting edge! As a former NYT correspondent, she approaches the issue of repatriation of ancient art from an investigative standpoint, and she includes those little details about the various people she interviews (what they’re wearing, how they talk, etc.) that makes the story come alive. This is a big book, and it could have easily become messy. However, Waxman chose four Western museums (the Louvre, the Met, the British Museum, and the Getty) and four countries who are calling for repatriation (Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy) that go together quite neatly. In this way, she keeps the book quite structured and crisp, which was a definite relief. As someone who knew nothing about the topic beforehand, I could easily follow what was going on. And Waxman has a talent for bringing out the passions of the subject: from the Egyptian politician angling to get back Nefertiti’s bust and the Rosetta Stone to the Met director, I could feel the love for antiquity pulsing on every page. Waxman also mixes the contemporary politics up with lessons in both ancient history and colonial history, which keeps things interesting. There have been a lot of eccentrics in the archaeology field, it seems, and Waxman trots out many of them for the readers’ enjoyment. She provides a balanced view of the issue, which I found refreshing, and her obvious goal is more to describe the problem than develop solutions (though in the conclusion she offers some general guidelines). The book does bog down towards the end a bit, when Waxman turns her attention to the Getty: she looks a little too much at the development and internal politics of it (compared to the other museums), in my opinion. This is what dropped it from a five-star to a strong four-star read to me. But at the end of the day, this was a fascinating peek into the world of ancient art, and one I’d highly recommend!
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
This isn’t exactly an under-the-radar book, so I’m sure my thoughts here will be brief. I was a little nervous to pick this one up, since the guy’s our president, and what if I suddenly discovered I didn’t agree with his politics at all?! Or his writing style was horrible? I now see how silly this was; I researched his platforms before I voted for him, and someone who was the Law Review president at Harvard probably knows how to put pen to paper. And while I didn’t agree with 100% of his positions (I’d say I’m with him about 90% of the time), I did agree 100% with his attitude. He’s intelligent, thoughtful, caring, and articulate. Many times, I was mentally pumping a fist up in the air (especially when he was talking about international politics), and I was just so proud while reading it that this man is my president. The book is a mix of memoir and political discussion (and while it’s thoughtful, the political coverage is more broad than deep): my favourite bits were the memoir parts. I loved hearing how he met Michelle, about his childhood in Indonesia, and his experiences as a baby Senator. Most of all, I loved how non-extremist the book was (I’m an Independent, though with strong liberal leanings, so that you know my bias). Take this passage:
I find the President and those who surround him to be pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us. No matter how wrongheaded I might consider their policies to be-and no matter how much I might insist that they be held accountable for the results of such policies-I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I share.
Oh, and the chapters were the perfect length and very readable-I had to limit myself to a chapter a day so that I could savour it! Obviously, I also highly recommend this one.
I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Essays on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
I listened to Ephron’s latest essay collection on CD as part of the My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge, and I have to say that the audiobook is great. Ephron herself is the reader, and I laughed so hard I cried on more than one occasion (and then harassed my mom by re-telling a lot of the stories). That being said, while she has a definite gift for humour, she can also grab you by the heart with her more serious essays (“Considering the Alternative” brought different kind of tears to my eyes). I want to make it clear that the entire collection is not about ageing: I thought it was, which is why I avoided the book for so long (after all, I’m not ageing!). It’s about being a woman, and being a person attached to certain things (the essay on cabbage strudel will ring a chord with anyone whose favourite restaurant closes or stops a certain dish or isn’t in their new town). There were a couple essays that didn’t do it for me, but I loved the vast majority of them. And, there is a wonderful one called “On Rapture” about Ephron’s experiences being caught up in books, which I think all of us will identify with (it was my very favourite). This is also a short book-good for people with long TBR lists! ;)
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
After three gushing reviews, we come to the more hesitant one. Black Like Me was part of my Black History Month reading, but I dithered about whether or not I should actually go for it. After all, I have limited reading time, and I’d rather read black writers on what being black is like than white writers on the same topic! But when my not-a-big-reader-sister brought it up in a conversation, I realised it was an important enough book that I should try it out. It’s a slim book, essentially a publication of the diary Griffin kept while he pretended to be a black man in the Deep South before the Civil Rights movement. As a modern reader, I only wish this part of Griffin’s afterword had been a preface, since it’s important to keep in mind while reading:
The experiment that led to writing Black Like Me was done at the very end of 1959, before the first “freedom rides” or any other manifestation of national concern about racial injustice. It was undertaken to discover if America was involved in the practice of racism against black Americans. Most white Americans denied any taint of racism and really believed that in this land we judged every man by his qualities as a human individual. In those days, any mention of racism brought to the public’s mind the Nazi suppression of Jewish people, the concentration camps, the gas chambers-and certainly, we protested, we were not like that.
I think it was easy, as someone living in modern America to treat Griffin’s observations with more than a little ‘well, duh’ attitude. I mean, how could anyone not realise that African Americans in Alabama weren’t treated well?! But by constantly trying to place it in its historical context, I did get a certain amount out of it. I wouldn’t call this a must-read, but it was an interesting look into a different time and place. I think the memoir’s strongest feature is that Griffin is brutally honest, willing to confront even the latent racism he finds within himself (although he’s spent his career working for equal rights).
Over the past two hundred years, antiquities and monuments have been ripped from the ground and shipped across the world, and many of these pieces now reside in the vast collections of the great museums of the West. Should they stay where they are-at the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and elsewhere-exhibited and preserved with care, accessible to avid crowds of visitors from around the world? Or should they return to their countries of origin, whose demands for restitution have grown ever more vociferous, a chorus of dissatisfaction from across the ancient world?
The reason for this was simple: Egypt produced no archaeologists of its own. There was a reason for this, too: Egyptians were not allowed to study Egyptology.
The politics of “us versus them” has to give way to a reaffirmation of the value of cultural exchange, and its real embrace by both sides. The process must start with a fundamental reexamination by Western museums of their collections and the way they are presented to the public. Our great museums tell lies of omission about the objects they display within their walls. in this new era of owning up tot he past, this state of affairs cannot continue. The history of plunder and appropriation must be acknowledged and aired for the public to understand the true origins fo these great works of antiquity. No museum can legitimately claim to be a custodian of history if it ignores the history of its own objects for reasons of personal convenience.
The Audacity of Hope
The spin, the amplification of conflict, the indiscriminate search for scandal and miscues-the cumulative impact of all this is to erode any agreed-upon standards for judging the truth. …But sometimes there are more accurate and less accurate answers; sometimes there are facts that cannot be spun, just as an argument about whether it’s raining can usually be settled by stepping outside. The absence of even rough agreement on the facts puts every opinion on equal footing and therefore eliminates the basis for thoughtful compromise. It rewards not those who are right, but those-like the White House press office-who can make their arguments most loudly, most frequently, most obstinately, and with the best backdrop.
So let’s be clear. The rich in America have little to complain about. Between 1971 and 2001, while the median wage and salary income of the average worker showed literally no gain, the income of the top hundredth of a percent went up almost 500 percent. The distribution of wealth is even more skewed, and levels of inequality are now higher than at any time since the Gilded Age. …I point out these facts not-as Republican talking points would have it-to stir up class envy. I admire many Americans of great wealth and don’t begrudge their success in the least. I know that many if not most have earned it through hard work, building business and creating jobs and providing value to their customers. I simply believe that those of us who have benefited most from this new economy can best afford to shoulder the obligation of ensuring every American child has a chance for that same success.
Our challenge, then, is to make sure that U.S. policies move the international system in the direction of greater equity, justice, and prosperity-that the rules we promote serve both our interests and the interests of a struggling world. In doing so, we might keep a few basic principals in mind. First, we should be skeptical of those who believe we can single-handedly liberate other people from tyranny. I agree with George W. Bush when in his second inaugural address he proclaimed a universal desire to be free. But there are few examples in history in which the freedom men and women crave is delivered through outside intervention. In almost every successful social movement of the last century, from Gandhi’s campaign against British rule to the Solidarity movement in Poland to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, democracy was the result of a local awakening. We can inspire and invite other people to assert their freedoms; we can use international forums and agreements to set standards for others to follow; we can provide funding to fledgling democracies to help institutionalize fair election systems, train independent journalists, and seed the habits of civic participation; we can speak out on behalf of local leaders whose rights are violated; and we can apply economic and diplomatic pressure to those who repeatedly violate the rights of their own people. But when we seek to impose democracy with tehbarrel of a gun, funnel money to parties whose economic policies are deemed friendlier to Washington, or fall under the sway of exiles like Chalabi whose ambitions aren’t matched by any discernible local support, we aren’t just setting ourselves up for failure. We are helping oppressive regimes paint democratic activists as tools of foreign powers and retarding the possibility that genuine, home-grown democracy will ever emerge.
It was only upon reflection, after the trials of those years had passed and the kids had started school, that I began to appreciate what Michelle had been going through at the time, the struggles so typical of today’s working mother. For no mater how liberated I liked to see myself as-no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners and that her dreams and ambitions were as important as my own-the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold.
Black Like Me
I learned a strange thing-that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word “nigger” leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and always it stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance.
All the courtesies in the world do not cover up the one vital and massive discourtesy-that the Negro is treated not even as a second-class citizen, but as a tenth-class one. His day-to-day living is a reminder of his inferior status. He does not become calloused to these things-the polite rebuffs when he seeks better employment; hearing himself referred to as nigger, coon, jigaboo; having to bypass available rest-room facilities or eating facilities to find one specified for him. Each new reminder strikes at the raw spot, deepens the wound. I do not speak here only from my personal reaction, but from seeing it happen to others, and from seeing their reactions.
Again, an important part of my daily life was spent searching for the basic things that all whites take for granted: a place to eat, or somewhere to find a drink of water, a rest room, somewhere to wash my hands. More than once I walked into drugstores where a Negro can buy cigarettes or anything else except soda fountain service.
It was thrown in my face. I saw it not as a white man and not as a Negro, but as a human parent. Their children resembled mine in all ways except the superficial one of skin color, as indeed they resembled all children of all humans. Yet this accident, this least important of all qualities, the skin pigment, marked them for inferior status. It became fully terrifying when I realized that if my skin were permanently black, the would unhesitatingly consign my own children to this bean future. One can scarcely conceive the full horror of it unless one is a parent who takes a close look at his children and then asks himself how he owuld feel if a group of men should come to his door and tell him they had decided-for reasons of convenience to them-that his children’s lives would henceforth be restricted, their world smaller, their educational opportunities les, their future mutilated.
The policeman nodded affably to me and I knew then that I had sucessfully passed back into white society, that I was once more a first-class citizen, that all doors into cafes, rest rooms, libraries, movies, concerts, schools and churchs were suddenly open to me. After so long I could not adjust to it. A sense of exultant liberation flooded through me. I crossed over to a restaurant and entered. I took a seat beside white men at the counter and the waitress smiled at me. It was a miracle. I ordered food and was served, and it was a miracle. I went to the rest room and was not molested. No one paid me the slightest attention. No one said, “What’re you doing in here, nigger?”