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Thought-Provoking Nonfiction (A Quartet of Thoughts)

March 13, 2009

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 arthistorystandpoint, 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!

audacityThe 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.

dangerously_bigI 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! ;)

blacklikemeBlack 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).

Notable Passages
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?”

27 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2009 6:19 am

    Interesting review of “Black Like Me.” Did you ever see the movie “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and if so, how do you think it compared?

  2. March 13, 2009 6:33 am

    Great post, Eva! The image for the Art History Challenge makes me want to join –it’s beautiful! I agree with you 100% regarding President Obama. It’s so refreshing to have someone in office who is intelligent and willing to listen to people with differing opinions.

  3. J.S. Peyton permalink
    March 13, 2009 6:42 am

    I’ve just added “I Feel Bad About My Neck” to my TBR list. I’d always been interested in reading it, but like you I thought the whole book was about aging which isn’t necessarily my thing at the moment. Your description kind of reminds me of “Learning to Drive” by Katha Pollitt, which I enjoyed enormously. I think you’d like it too!

  4. March 13, 2009 6:51 am

    Eva, Eva, Eva…what am I going to do with you?!! Three books added to my wish list from one post! Okay, Loot was technically already on there, because I read a review in Natural History magazine (I think that’s where is was anyway), but it wasn’t really all that high on the “must have” scale. Until now, that is! And somewhat like you, I have sort of avoided Audacity. Not even quite sure exactly why. But now I know I absolutely need to read it. And I Feel Bad About My Neck…well, I’d never even heard of it before. You’re terrible, my dear, terrible! In a very good way, of course. :D

  5. March 13, 2009 8:35 am

    I hadn’t heard of Loot before, but it sounds right up my alley. Another one to add to my great big list of books I’ll get once my TBR has gone down.

  6. stacybuckeye permalink
    March 13, 2009 11:02 am

    I read Black Like Me and agree with everything you said :)
    I’ve Audacity of Hope on my list for awhile and your review reminds me I need to move it closer to the top of my pile!

  7. March 13, 2009 11:09 am

    Thanks for this round up, as Loot sounds like something I’d love. I visited the British Museum last Sunday (they have a great exhibition on 16th century Iran at the moment) and myself and my husband were actually talking about the looting of artefacts that underpin Western museums! Your extract from Audacity is also precisely why Obama seems like the ideal president for these times – recognising the humanity in his opponents. I also think the essay form is due a revival – it’s great to read (or listen to!) a good writer pondering on specific things – so I’ll keep an eye out for Ephron next time I’m browsing in a bookshop [smile]

  8. March 13, 2009 12:57 pm

    I’ve added the Nora Ephron book to my wishlist. I’ve heard of it before, but you sold me on listening to the audiobook. I’m always on the lookout for good audiobooks.

  9. March 13, 2009 4:21 pm

    I’ve had The Audacity of Hope on my shelf for so long now – I bought it when the US election campaign was on so that I could do some research but I was lazy and didn’t get around to it before the wonderful conclusion of the election was reached! I will have to get around to reading it very soon.

  10. March 13, 2009 5:20 pm

    Bad, bad, bad, blogger, Eva! We’ve missed you so much!! That’s three books added to my wishlist, 3 eventual points for you! Loot sounds so interesting – we have the aboriginal artifacts and no credit given to whom they were ‘taken’ from, and all requests to return them to the reserves/aboriginal cultures and rightful holders, are denied outright, if not ignored. Sorry, that’s one of my soapboxes!! Then there’s Nora Ephron’s book, which I’ve been looking for for a while now, and of course President Obama’s, which if I am to consider myself educated and politically aware, I could at least read his own writings and then judge him on what he does!! so thank you, eva, this was a great post, and as always, you leave me breathless at the width of your reading! Way more nonfiction than I average in a year! (oops, did I say that out loud? Reflects badly on me, I know!)

  11. March 13, 2009 8:32 pm

    Rhapsody in Books, I haven’t seen that movie, but I want to. I love Gregory Peck!

    Lisa, I really like the Art History button! And yay for more Obama fans. ;)

    J.S. Peyton, I’d see if my library has Learning to Drive!

    Debi, hehe-I think you’d really enjoy Loot!

    Memory, oh the TBR pile and TBR lists…so aspirational… ;)

    Stacy, I’m glad you felt the same way about Black Like Me!

    Logophile, Loot is definitely up your alley then! I remember, when I went on a field trip to see the Rosetta Stone in seventh grade, wondering why it was in London, lol.

    Alyce, it’s definitely a good audiobook!

    Karen, can’t way to see what you think of it, as a non-American. :)

    Susan, I don’t think a low nonfiction count reflects badly on you! I have a super-low sci-fi count. :) I’ve missed you a ton!

  12. March 13, 2009 9:13 pm

    Oooh, now I totally want to read The Audacity of Hope and the Nora Ephron book! I’m SO THRILLED that Obama is our president too!!

  13. March 14, 2009 3:19 am

    These all sound good. I’ve had both of Obamas books lying around the house since before the election but still haven’t gotten around to reading them. I really need to do that.

  14. March 14, 2009 2:00 pm

    Eva, I’m so glad to hear how much you enjoyed The Audacity of Hope. I’ve been an Obama fan for years (I’m an Illinois resident, so he’s been pretty prominent around here for a long time) and I read the book basically the DAY it came out. So thought-provoking! You and I probably think similarly when it comes to politics as I would say I’m with him about 90% of the time too.

  15. March 14, 2009 2:01 pm

    Oh, one more thing. Have you read Dreams From My Father by Obama? If not, you definitely should, as it’s 100% memoir and you said you really enjoyed the memoir sections of the book. If you want to borrow it I’d be happy to send it out to you (but I would have to ask for it back, as it’s one of my faves!). Let me know!

  16. March 14, 2009 4:31 pm

    These all sound interesting for different reasons. What a great way to knock off four reviews in one post. I’ve been meaning to read The Audacity of Hope but haven’t picked it up yet. Thanks for the reviews :)

  17. March 15, 2009 11:26 pm

    Interesting post, Eva, which I will have to get back on commenting, having worked myself in a Western Museum with great collections of Ancient Art ;) I don’t have time now, as I am on my way out for work….

  18. March 16, 2009 4:07 am

    Daphne, I think you’d definitely enjoy them!!

    Emily, I think it’s funny that the TBR books I *own* always take the backseat to library books. :)

    Heather, I went to college in Illnois, and he as actually our graduation speaker in 2006, so I know all about Obama mainia. ;) I’m on my library’s hold list for Dreams From My Father-thanks for the offer though!

    Samantha, thanks-writing multiple reviews in one post makes me edit my rambling, which is probably a good thing!

    Louise, which museum do you work at?

  19. March 17, 2009 8:28 am

    I feel like I already knew you went to college in IL, but where did you go? My apologies if I’ve asked you this already…

  20. March 21, 2009 6:00 am

    I’m back with a spinning head and feeling a bit stressed because of all the stuff I am going to do but keep procratinating and popping online to check out blogs ;)

    Anyway, not sure I can collect my thoughts enough to write anything intelligent re. the loot-question, but I used to work at the New Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. I worked in their Egyptian Dept., and we don’t have any looted goods in that department. All objects were bought off the Egyptian authorities or came from archaeological digs which the Egyptian authorities either did not care about or had approved.

    This happened during the late 1800’s and in the beginning of the 1900’s and it goes without saying, that ancient art dealing is not practiced this way no more. But note that the darn stuff was bought from the national authorities. Not some shady art dealer in a back alley.

    The Egyptians simply didn’t care about the stuff back then and probably shook their heads in amazement of those idiotic Europeans who wanted to pay money for old stone-crap ;) Its not so black and white as I describe it here, but I just want to nail a pole through the myth about “But Egypt wants it all back”.

    No, they don’t. They (the present day antiquity authorities) are perfectly aware that many objects in European and western museums were acquired legally in Egypt through a practice not used any longer.

    So they are not coming now saying that they want the stuff back. What they do want back are things which has either a very, very important place in the ancient Egyptian history (Rosetta-stone for instance) OR has been looted (either recently or further back in time. Restrcitions of what to take out of Egypt legally was put into effect early in the 1900’s) OR has been bought illegally from illegal art dealers.

    Suffice it to say that The Egyptian Museum in Cairo sold antiquities from their own darn museumshop until the beginning of the 1970’es!!! I get so worked up when the Egyptian Antiquity-people get up on their high horses and claim all sorts of things, when they were in fact very much a part of it themselves. Double standards if you ask me.

    But let me say again, and stress it carefully, that of course I don’t think looting is okay. Not at all. We just need to look at each and every object and check exactly HOW it came out of Egypt. Most objects left Egypt perfectly legal with offcial papers from the then-antiquity authorities.


    Another thing though re. the museum where I worked. Another of their departments (Ancient Mediterreanean Dept) has looted stuff from Italian digs, which are relatively recent, and I know that the museum are now in talks with Italian antiquity-authorities to find a solution. This case is closely linked to the case which has also affected Getty Museum in LA and The Met in NYC.


  21. March 21, 2009 8:28 am

    Hi Louise! You bring up some good issues, and they’re addressed in the book. One thing I would point out, is that the ‘then-antiquity authorities’ were French, not Egyptian. So even if it was ‘official,’ that doesn’t get rid of the whole moral dilemma. I think if you read the book, you’d be impressed; I thought it dealt with the sides fairly evenly.


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