Going Into Town, A Love Letter to New York, Roz Chast, 2017

It began as a small booklet I made for my daughter before she left her home in Suburbia to attend college in Manhattan. Roz Chast

I’ve only been to New York City, Manhattan specifically, once in my life. It was a about seven months after 9/11 and even though I’d never set foot on its streets prior to that visit, I could tell the city wasn’t itself. In fact, the United States was trying to adjust to a new reality and there was this sense that we were all acting normal though we weren’t feeling it. As such, I missed out on the energy and hustle and bustle for which New York is known.

Roz Chast is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker. She’s also written and illustrated several books.

She makes it clear that this book is not meant to be guidebook. There are no detailed descriptions of places and activities, though she included plenty of hand drawn maps. It’s more like a “how to” book. How to navigate Manhattan, how to live in Manhattan and how to enjoy Manhattan. It’s also a persuasive argument about why to love Manhattan. The book is utterly charming in its sincerity.

Several pages show readers the grid that makes up most of Manhattan’s transportation system: avenues vs. streets, cross streets, the importance of Fifth Avenue, etc. There’s a chapter devoted to using the subway, complete with descriptions of the number and letter trains and the shuttle, taxis and buses needed to complete the journey.

It’s as informative and as it is entertaining. Chast has an easy to understand writing style, paired with jittery sketch-ish illustrations that help convey the meaning. Despite growing up in Brooklyn and living in Manhattan for years, she has a folksy Midwestern friendliness not usually ascribed to New Yorkers. Her teachings are done with patience and her insights are thoughtful enough to include what most New Yorkers probably take for granted. The tone is optimistic and assuring.

Though she left New York in the early nineties, Chast and the city parted on good terms and she has nothing but lovely things to say about the relationship.

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Johnson and Bob Adelman, 2008

I’ve seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you.But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Black and white photos have a way of stopping time. Even when the subject moves, the picture has an eerie stillness that color photos don’t. There’s something elegant and regal about black and white that makes that moment seem paramount, even when it’s just one of many moments in an ordinary day.

Johnson and Adelman’s biography, Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., captures hundreds of moments in Dr. King’s short life. A few from his childhood, a few with his family, but mostly Dr. King and his aides fighting for racial justice. Some show him getting arrested not only for his civil disobedience, but overblown violations like failing to switch his driver’s license to another state in a timely manner. Most of the pictures are of Dr. King as he speaks to crowds of varying sizes.

In prose that is powerful but never melodramatic, writer Johnson recounts the big moments of Dr. King’s life—Birmingham, Selma, the Nobel Prize—as well as the lesser known verities that showed his humanity. Complemented with pictures compiled by activist and photojournalist Bob Adelman, the book offers a fuller view into Dr. King’s committment and perseverance. In one disturbing photo, Dr. King calmly sits after being stabbed with a letter opener by mentally troubled black woman, the letter opener still sticking out of his chest. In the weeks following the incident, he begged authorities to treat her mercifully and get her the help she needed. In a happier photo,
he sits at a piano with his wife, Coretta, and their children joyfully belting out songs.

The book doesn’t presume to know Dr. King’s thoughts or feelings about the events contained on its pages. Certainly, a man as eloquent and vocal as
Dr. King didn’t need someone to articulate his emotions for him. It does however give context and history to those events which makes Dr. King’s work all the more remarkable. One can only imagine the physical exhaustion he felt not only from his non-stop traveling but also the mental stress of worrying about his family’s safety as well as his own.  One can only guess his deep disappointment when faced with the setbacks on what at times probably seemed an impossible journey.

At forty-four, I’m now five years older than Dr. King. To think of all he accomplished in such a short time with so many obstacles is staggering. I’m struck by the youthful energy that radiates from the photos, even those taken near the end of his life when he must have been so tired from the travel and the strain of his mission. Learning new information about Martin Luther King, Jr. gave me a new appreciation for him.

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. humanizes a man who’s taken on a mythic status in our society.

The Little Book of Feminist Saints, Julia Pierpont, 2018

Julia Pierpont, 2018

Though the name may be misleading to Catholics, The Little Book of Feminist Saints does not limit its subjects to (or even include) Catholic saints. The word Feminist in the title is a huge clue that this book isn’t going to sing the praises of St. Catherine or St. Bernadette.

Instead, it borrows the format from the Little Book of Saints. In those books there are usually 365 saints, each one given a day of the year as their ‘feast day’. They include a short passage about the saint, describing their early lives and what they did to become a saint.

Pierpont has compiled a list of ninety-nine accomplished women and given us a brief synopsis about them. These blurbs are paired with illustrations by Manjit Thapp.

Aside from the short biography, each entry includes the woman’s name, birth year and home country and what she is the matron saint of, (i.e. photographer Dorothea Lange is the Matron Saint of the self-taught, gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson is the Matron Saint of protest) The women are assigned “feast days”. Sometimes the day coincides with their birthdays, sometimes with their best-known accomplishment. However, the reason for the date is never given so if one wants to know why, for instance, Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker’s feast day falls on August 12, one must scour the internet and discover that it was the day she was released as part of a prisoner exchange after being captured by Confederate troops.

Most entries are straightforward. A brief history and a paragraph or so about their claim to fame. Some entries are creative and clever. Maria Montessori’s blurb is interspersed with the Montessori school daily schedule. Mother and daughter politician Ann and Cecile Richards’ entry is comprised of feminist quotes by both women.

Though the idea is simple, the book is uneven, starting with the title. Aside from the word saint being a little misleading, the word “feminist” adds some confusion. When I read it, I thought the women in the book were feminists, actively promoting women’s rights in their corner of the world. Now I think feminist refers to the reader. These are women feminists would admire and be inspired by, even if the women themselves weren’t feminist.

Some entries are bizarre and don’t really honor the people. Anne Frank’s blurb is more about the tree outside her window than her. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s choppy write-up is unnecessarily written in second person.  Mother and daughter Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley must share a page. The tenuous connection between Wollstonecraft’s truly feminist “The Vindication of the Rights of Women” and Shelley’s gothic horror “Frankenstein” feels forced.

The choice of the women felt uneven as well though I sincerely applaud the inclusion of different ethnicities, religions, countries and eras (the times range from BC to the present).

Some are obvious choices. They’ve dedicated their lives to empowering women: Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Sanger

Some are obscure: Faith Spotted Eagle, Hypatia of Alexandria, Wangari Maathai, Bella Abzug

Some are accomplished but not necessarily feminist. They were simply the first or most prominent woman in their field: Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride

Some weren’t even women at all, but young girls thrown into situations beyond their control: Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, Phyllis Wheatley, Malala Yousafzai

And some are like, yeah, I guess: Helen Hayes, Madonna, Emily Dickenson

And while I don’t begrudge any of the women in the book, there are some noticeable voids: Mae Jemison, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomeyer, Margaret Atwood, Coretta Scott King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Tori Amos, Sweden’s Queen Christina, Biddy Mason, etc.

All in all, it’s a quick read and a good starting point to delve deeper women’s contributions. Older kids (fifth grade and up) would do well to use it to find a topic for a report or presentation. Others might find the entries of interest as trivia but certainly not comprehensive.  I appreciate the spirit of the book. It’s a decent compilation of famous and not so famous women who have done great things.

The Book of Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor, 2015

phoenix

To them, I was like a plant the grew for the sake of harvesting. Nnedi Okorafor

Spoilers

Science fiction isn’t my favorite genre (2018 Book Challenge). Star Trek the Next Generation and Black Mirror aside, I just don’t dig the genre.

Dystopian bleakness, intrusive governments and removed humanity—none of it really appeals to me, partly because in the United States we’re living it. The worlds portrayed in sci-fi are never ones I want to inhabit and the stories leave me with an uneasiness that makes me want to go outside and take deep breaths.

The Book of Phoenix ticks off all the sci-fi tropes:

Dystopian future. Check.

Corrupt government. Check

Technology run amuck. Check

What sets The Book of Phoenix apart from the other sci-fi I’ve read (and admittedly, that’s not many) is the blatant inclusion of social messages. In other books, the issue is disguised in metaphor—such as Vonnegut’s Ice Nine as a stand in for nuclear weapons. In The Book of Phoenix the issue–the misuse and abuse of black bodies for medical advancement and war—is the entire point of the book. Okorafor uses the United States’ own history by referencing the Tuskegee Syphilis trials by name. A character named HeLa is the actual embodiment of Henrietta Lacks’ pilfered undying cells. Most of the SpeciMen are Black Americans or taken from countries in Africa, a colonizing of the human body rather than natural resources.

The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Okorafor’s award-winning Who Fears Death. The actions of main character Phoenix set up the world for heroine Onyesonwu Ubaid-Ogundimu. (I haven’t read Who Fears Death, so I don’t know if there’s a stronger link between the books).

The story begins when an elderly Okeke man, Sunuteel, stumbles upon ancient technology hidden away in a cave. He uses his portable device to access The Book of Phoenix, like an audio book.

Told in her own worlds, the book chronicles the life of Phoenix, an “accelerated” woman. Even though she functions as an adult and appears to be about forty-years-old, she is only two. For her entire life, she’s lived in Tower 7 alongside other creations and mutants called SpeciMen created by The Big Eye, an ominous organization separate from the government yet just as powerful and far-reaching. The SpeciMen’s purposes are kept secret, sometimes even to them. To prevent curiosity about her own existence, she’s allowed to read any book she wants, a pastime that gives her great joy. She’s also allowed to have close, though structured, relationships with a few of the others.

An emotional and traumatic loss triggers a physical reaction in her and she realizes her purpose. She was born to be a weapon of mass destruction. True to her name, she can combust on command, destroying everything around her. She can rise from her own ashes to be used over and over again.

With nothing to lose Phoenix becomes a one-woman uprising, bent on destroying The Big Eye. For much of the book, Phoenix seeks revenge. Freeing, or in some cases unleashing, other SpeciMen is more of a bonus than an objective. She’ll stop at nothing to annihilate the oppressor even if it means forever changing the landscape of the earth and its future.

Then we go back to Sunuteel. I’m not going to give away his role because the end of the book is like a punch to the gut.  I will say it is jaw-droppingly, eye-rollingly, painfully infuriating in a very intentional way. His actions may even have more to do with shaping the world of Who Fears Death than Phoenix’s. And despite the exasperation I felt, I couldn’t help but pity Sunuteel, a victim of generations of self-loathing, as he did what he thought was best.

This book is definitely sci-fi, but transcends the genre as I know it. Like all good stories, it uses the tropes to get to the humanity of the characters. It isn’t about the technology or magic. It’s about one woman, using the powers forced on her, to right the wrongs by any means necessary. Phoenix is a wonderful character, raw and human. I found myself drawn to her and I love the fact that she is the one telling her story as opposed to a narrator or other character.

Okorafor’s storytelling and narrative voice is compelling. Ghana and it’s culture play a large part in the book as does the entire continent of Africa. But it doesn’t feel exploitative like an author looking for a foreign landscape to set the mood. It feels organic and necessary, as if the story could only take place with these elements. The entire story has that feeling, as if everything that happens must happen the way it does. Not that it feels predictable or trite, but that this is the history of the universe that Okorafor created.

 

A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain, 1998

CooksTour

I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books.  Anthony Bourdain

I’ll admit, when Anthony Bourdain came onto the scene, I didn’t like him much. His disdainful alpha male attitude wrapped in a scrawny frame smacked of male posturing. And a chain-smoking food expert? Did he have any taste buds left to really make judgement calls on cuisine? I found him needlessly acerbic given his job was to literally fly all over the world and eat delicious food. But people change. As he got older, he mellowed and seemed to make peace with the commercial side of the tv programming that bankrolled his lifestyle.

His death in June shocked and saddened me deeper than I expected so I was compelled to read one of his many books. I had trouble deciding the category, since I have a slot for travel and one for a book with food on the cover (2018 Reading Challenge). I opted to give him the travel category.

Another confession, Bourdain’s death overshadowed my impression of the book. I found it hard to read the words he wrote 10 years ago without reflecting on how his story ultimately ended. Because of this, I’m not sure I can give it a fair review. I will say, that Bourdain writes the way he speaks (or vice versa). I heard his voice as if he was narrating an episode of a show. And the book was written as they were filming the show. So that gives you some indication of what the book is like.

His travels take him all over the world (Russia, Japan, Morocco, Mexico etc.). He didn’t just visit countries as a curious outsider, looking askance and mocking the “strange” foods set before him. He sat down with his hosts and learned about them and life in their country, the good and the bad. He became a reminder for us self-absorbed Americans that yes, other countries have amazing histories and cultures worth celebrating. He was a great ambassador, using food as the bridge between cultures. Despite his gruff exterior he also had a way of making people open up, even those who lived under regimes that would not appreciate the frankness.

Simply put, Bourdain respected people’s right to be different.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, 1963

Cat's Cradle

No damn cat, no damn cradle. Kurt Vonnegut

 

Spoilers

Happy Banned Book Week! (2018 Reading Challenge)

In 1972, the school board of Strongsville, OH banned Vonnegut’s work for… no specific reason. Apparently, someone just didn’t like it (Minarcini v. Strongsville City School District)

And what’s not to like?

A not-so-veiled critique of the self-serving fluidity of organized religion.

A not-so-covert jab at the sincerity of organized religion.

A not-so-subtle anti-nuclear weapons message.

A not-so-hidden contempt for authority figures who arrogantly assume they know what’s best.

I can’t imagine what entities would find these thoughts threatening.

So it goes.

Vonnegut’s story follows our narrator, John, who prefers to be called Jonah, as he goes from would-be-author to would-be-dictator in a short amount of time. We end up in a place not opposite of where we expected but more up, over and to the left.

Jonah’s wacky adventure…well, it’s too bizarre to really summarize and if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure how we got from the beginning of the book to the end. It all seemed organic at the time. The short chapters propel the story forward at a brisk pace so there isn’t really time to take in the absurdity until the end when you realize just how much has transpired.

Vonnegut tackles big subjects in big ways.

He uses the fake religion of Bokonism to skewer the false comfort of organized religion. Jonah becomes enamored with Bokonism, a faith filled with dubious wisdom and bizarre rituals and built on lies. Even after finding out the religion was designed with disingenuous motives, Jonah still finds comfort in the teachings.

The non-existent Ice Nine stands in for nuclear weapons and Vonnegut doesn’t pretend there are pros and cons to its use. The bleak hopeless end of the novel pretty much sums up Vonnegut’s anti-nuke stance. The crux of the book asks the question “We can, but should we?” Vonnegut’s answer is clearly “No.”

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, 2004

Persepolis

We can only feel sorry for ourselves when our misfortunes are still supportable. Once this limit is crossed, the only way to bear the unbearable is to laugh at it. Marjane Satrapi

Originally written in French and translated (2018 Reading Challenge) into several languages, Marjane Satrapi’s recounts life from childhood to young adulthood during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. As a Bildungsroman, a type of memoir focusing on one’s years of educational or spiritual growth (I learned that skimming the Wikipedia article for Persepolis) she not only discusses the historical events, but what it meant to her as a child and how it impacted her young adulthood.

Satrapi’s story begins just before the Revolution. She lives the best of both worlds. Her father’s job as a government engineer offers a life of privilege and security. Her Uncle Anoosh, a revolutionary, is a source of awe and inspiration giving her cache among her politically aware school mates. Her parents encourage her education and political awakening even as an oppressive force looms in the distance.

The new regime quickly chips away at the people’s freedoms—requiring the veil, segregating schools by gender, jailing and executing those who speak out against the fundamentalists—and erodes Satrapi’s childhood. Eventually, her parents send her to Austria for her safety and well-being. Upon her return years later, she finds she is a foreigner in her own homeland.  She writes, “I was a westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity.”

Satrapi’s stark images—black and white, no greys—fit the tone and content of her life’s view perfectly. Like most young people, she believes the world should function according to her limited viewpoint. It’s her way or it’s wrong.

She portrays moments of despair—sacrifice, separation and death are companions to war—yet the story never gets maudlin. In fact, like most survivors, she finds humor in the absurdity of her rapidly changing world. She doesn’t dwell too long on the gory details, but she doesn’t shield the reader from them either. War and oppression are not pretty, and life doesn’t go back to normal. The book is surprisingly uplifting in many ways. As the society in which she dwells gets crushed under the weight of a new normal, Satrapi, her parents and grandmother really stay the same. The rebellious fire may have to be hidden, but it still burns.