Archive for May, 2019

With Time’s Passage

His visits are few and far between.
When he comes, no words are exchanged.
The past no longer incriminates
either of us; love trumps such disputes.
Our eyes meet with affection.
With time’s passage, I’ve grown older,
he has regressed to middle age.
Life and death’s border has narrowed.
Last night I saw a child asleep in
the back of a car, curled into the nest of
his father’s tobacco scented coat.
Trusting and innocent, he awaited arms
to cradle him gently to bed.
In that dream, I found myself being lifted,
the boy now heavy with age.
Even though I’ve become older than he,
Father bore me safely to dawn.

Sing, Unburied, Sing / Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing, takes the reader into the Deep South of recent times, where the injustices of the past continue to haunt the present.  Set in the state of Mississippi, it presents a narrative portrait of a mixed race family, told mainly in the voice of the son and his mother, and a third associated with the boy’s black grandfather.

Jojo is the thirteen year old son, and he lives with his black grandparents and mother, plus a a baby sister who he watches over like a guardian angel.  His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in her children’s lives.  Their white father, Michael, is totally absent, serving time in the state penitentiary because of drug charges.  As the story unfolds, Ward charts the fine line between the living family and members who died violent deaths in the recent past.  A haunting presence in the background, Jojo’s black grandmother is near death as cancer strips away the last of her strength to fight the disease.  Despite this, Ward’s novel pulses with the insistent energy of life, both messy and beautiful.

The landscape that the author paints provides a disturbing glimpse into a community where whites and blacks continue to live uncomfortably side-by-side, where drug abuse has destroyed the fabric of society, and poverty is all too evident.  However, this novel does not focus on the negative aspects of such circumstances, but rather on the resiliency of family ties to overcome the poor hand that life has dealt them.

There is so much to like about Sing, Unburied, Sing.  I was especially drawn to the character of Jojo and his tender relationship with his grandfather and baby sister.  While an intimate story of a family, a road trip to the state penitentiary, when his father is to be released following his incarceration, provides a broader view of Mississippi’s marginalized communities.  Ward’s prose throughout is lyrical and searing.  There is poetry to be found on every page of this book.  It proved to be an engaging read that concentrates not on racial differences, but how alike we all are when it comes to the importance of family in steering a way forward.  It is a bond that unites all sides of the racial divide.  Jesmyn Ward is destined to be remembered as an author whose work stands the test of time.   She deserves the critical raves this and her first novel have brought her way.

At A Certain Age

Sleep at a certain age
does not obliterate, it manufactures.
There are so many memories,
fears, and regrets to untangle and
weave into coherency.
The rumpled truth requires ironing;
honesty has nothing to
do with the garment presented us.
Gone is a healing absence
once taken for granted as our due.
An audience held captive,
sleep’s busy storytelling intrigues,
ripe for interpretation.
But half-awake, at a certain age,
how rarely it satisfies.

The Poison Squad : One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety At The Turn Of The Century / Deborah Blum

At the turn of the nineteenth century in the U.S., there was no government regulation of what ingredients companies were allowed to put into the food products they produced.  As a result, many Americans died or suffered serious medical complications after eating food contaminated with substances that proved harmful.  Deborah Blum’s book describes the efforts to regulate the food industry to ensure that products truthfully listed their ingredients and were safe for human consumption.  The person who led this fight was Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief chemist of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Even though a good many people were being sickened by the food they consumed, the industry resisted any form of regulation.  Their argument was that such oversight would bankrupt them, and represented an impingement on their democratic right to do as they pleased.  Using generous campaign donations, these industries had many members of Congress in their back pockets.  The battle for regulation, led by Wiley and his allies, would take over a decade before modest successes were recorded.

Blum’s focus on Wiley is both a strength and a weakness of the book.  He is not a person the reader can easily identify with; a zealot for food safety, he was opposed to companies adding any type of additional chemicals to their products.  Still, thanks to his tireless efforts, the food industry was finally forced to truthfully label food ingredients, and a good many substances were banned from use.

What makes the book interesting is not Wiley himself, as he often comes across as being unable to work with the food industry to find a compromise that would satisfy both sides of the issue.  It is the political maneuvering that the food industry used to resist regulation.  Despite the harm caused by their products, the companies continued to beat the drum that legislation would threaten profitability and destroy the economy.

The Poison Squad describes the first efforts to ensure food safety in this country.  And yet in the book’s conclusion, Blum highlights the continued push back from the food industry today.  With the Trump administration intent on cutting regulations, it is clear that the battle for food safety is far from over.  Favoring profit over safety remains a major concern here in 2019.  Thanks to Blum’s illuminating history, the reader is made aware that not all regulations represent government overreach.  In a democracy, no industry should be allowed to do as they please if it means the public will be harmed as a result.

The Good Earth / Pearl S. Buck

What a pleasure it was to revisit The Good Earth, a novel I had not read since my high school days.  The story tells the life history of Wang Lung, an illiterate farmer living on a small plot of land in rural China.  He is a man who could care less about politics or the news of distant events; his entire focus is on nurturing the land that feeds his family.  To him, the soil he toils on represents the worth of a person.  Even so, he is only too well aware that he is at the mercy of weather events.  A good growing season means there will be just enough food on the table to sustain his family through the fallow winter months; a poor one brings only the prospect of starvation and lawlessness in the countryside.

The story’s time period is never mentioned, but based on Buck’s detailed description, one supposes it is set in the early part of the 20th Century.  In the opening chapter, Wang Lung is preparing to visit the House of Hwang, a noble family that rules over the community.  His purpose is to bring home a wife.  O-Lan is a slave no longer wanted, a plain looking woman, but like Wang Lung, she is a tireless worker.  Over the course of her short life, she gives birth to four children, two sons and two daughters.  All are delivered at home, alone in her bedroom without any medical assistance.  And the day after giving birth, she again joins her husband to provide assistance in the fields.

A family long accustomed to wealth, the House of Hwang’s opulent life style has led to a depletion of their fortune.  In desperate need of money, the Hwangs are only too willing to sell their land when Wang Lung offers to buy parcels of it.  The story comes full circle with Wang Lung late in life being able to move his into the palatial residency long after the House of Hwang has fallen to ruin.  This comes, however, only after a severe drought drives Wang Lung and his family to a larger community in search of work and food.  It is there that an unexpected event provides him with enough money to return to his community and allows him to begin to slowly expand his land holdings.

Pearl S. Buck grew up in China, and her first language was Chinese, not English.  Her understanding and appreciation of the country’s culture is evident throughout the book.  Never judgmental, she presents her characters with a sympathetic eye, and in doing so is able to vividly bring to life what the peasant class in China faced in trying to stay alive from year to year.  It is ironic that as Wang Lung grows wealthy through hard labor on the land, his two sons lose their appreciation for the soil.  In the story’s conclusion, they have begun to resemble the displaced members of the House of Hwang.

The Good Earth is a novel set in pre-revolutionary China, but it is a timeless story that describes what life was like for peasant families throughout recorded history.  For readers who have not read the novel since high school days, it is well worth picking up again.  The world described within it still resonates today.  I was captivated by the story from beginning to end.  Rooted in the good earth, Buck’s simple tale will continue to delight generations to come with a glimpse of what our ancestors once endured.

Questioning Alexa

What were the color of Jesus’ eyes;
was he white like me?
How many people have died since
I last asked?
Which version of “White Christmas”
do you prefer?
Are your parents practicing Christians?
Have you ever grown
bored in the silence of an empty room?
In the accumulation
of data, is weight gain a concern?
Are the two of us friends;
if yes, explain your ambivalent replies.
And tell me please,
why I still feel alone in this exchange.

Temporary Winter Night

The ice on the pond is flesh thick only,
one prick of my foot
and the water will gush forth like blood
from an open wound.
Tonight’s snowfall is a clever deception;
tomorrow before noon
only fallen leaves will blanket the lawn,
still summer green.
So like my heart, no longer hardened in
denial following your
accusation, this temporary winter night.

How Green The Grass

Oak Street was only ten blocks long
with not one oak to be found there or any-
where near, but it was our nation
and the maples that paraded up and down it
were magnificent enough for us.

Until finally surrendering to
the lure of Main Street and wider horizons,
it was an immense kingdom
that we valiantly defended time and again
in the battlefield of make believe.

Later, imaginations enlarged
beyond those ten blocks, and chafing
against its narrow confines,
as deceiving as our street’s name, how green
the grass seemed elsewhere.

The Design Of Everyday Things / Donald A. Normand

First published in 1988 under the title The Psychology of Everyday Things, this book is considered a classic for anyone interested in design.  In it, Donald Normand makes the argument that the objects and equipment we use in everyday life should be better designed to prevent error and confusion.  What makes this an informative read is his contrasting of flawed designs with good ones.

The examples he peppers throughout the book include faucets, doors, light switches, telephones, and keyboards.  Normand humorously draws on his own experiences (and other people’s) in describing examples of poorly designed objects.  Some of the equipment described––VCRs, word processors, telephones––might seem antiquated to readers in 2019.  Even so, the principles of good design that he lays out are still applicable to today’s high tech world, since they tend to be timeless.

One of Normand’s major arguments throughout the book is that it is not the user’s fault when they are unable to operate a particular device or piece of equipment.  He strongly feels that it is the fault of the design.  Too often, a design is created to win awards for attractiveness at the cost of usability.  This book is a primer on why some products satisfy while others only frustrate.  

Thanks to the author’s insights, most readers will come away paying closer attention to the look and feel of the everyday objects they interact with, and rather than blaming themselves for not being able use the latest technology, they can place the fault back where it belongs.  This is  a book that has stood the test of time and remains relevant to today’s audience.  Normand’s use of humor throughout is an added element that makes The Design of Everyday Things a delight to read.

Morning Meditation

Question––
what does a poet leave behind
in a wastepaper basket?
pieces of dreams
visions of tomorrow
conversations recorded
crumpled confessions
early drafts, later failures
shards that never fit
what modesty does not permit
thoughts and prayers
weather reports
a childhood recreated
one-sided talks with God
life’s ripped, scattered parts
and other words
that fell flat on the page

If only I could cherry-pick
what the great poets
have ruthlessly discarded––
fusing together
their wastebasket trash into
a completed hymn––
it would surely be symphony
to most ears

Blossoming

Not so much a nightgown
shrugged off
than one becoming transparent.
Before jewelry is
donned, the simplicity of what
a mirror reveals.
Discarded, a night’s worth of
dreams closeted as
today’s ensemble is chosen.
No bright colors,
not yet; at silence’s edge,
subtle suffices.
The sum of all parts, why rush
when overhead
a new moon is still visible.
In such clarity,
hesitancy might be mistaken
for shyness.
But no, what a glassy pond
winsomely reflects
is dawn’s light, blossoming.

The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness / Arundhati Roy

In 1997, Arundhati Roy published her debut novel, The God of Small Things.  The novel not only became a best seller, it won numerous literary awards.  While Roy has published numerous nonfiction works since then, it was only in 2017 that she followed up with her second novel.  In the period following her first novel, Roy became heavily involved in India politics, focusing in particular on the Kashmiri separatist movement in northern India.  It is her activism that is highlighted in this work.

While The God of Small Things concentrated on a community of people living in a remote Indian village, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness involves itself in the broader topic of multicultural life in India. The first section of her novel deals with a transgender woman, Anjum, who grew up as a boy.  When reaching adulthood, she chooses a female persona and builds a house in a graveyard which attracts a colorful cast of misfits seeking to prosper in India’s conservative environment. The second section tells the story of S. Tilottama (Tilo), a former architectural student and the three men who become nominally involved with her.  Only one of them truly wins her heart, Musa, a freedom fighter in Kashmir.  This involves her in opposing India’s attempts to crush the Kashmiri separatist movement, focusing on the government’s use of intimidation and torture of Muslims opposing military rule.

The God of Small Things dealt with the personal side of life in a remote Indian village.  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is much more political in nature, highlighting the clash of Hindu and Muslim communities in India in recent years.  Roy excels in capturing the hearts and minds of her characters who are perceived as misfits in a society that has become increasingly unaccepting of people who fall outside the norm.  But her story also seems one-sided, focusing on subjugation of the Muslim population, while paying no heed to the terrorist activities of the movement seeking Kashmir’s independence.

Roy’s gifts as an author are on full display when she focuses on the personal lives of her characters.  The political sections, however, come across as heavy handed, seeming more a lecture than allowing the reader to draw their own conclusion.  Nonetheless, it is an ambitious novel despite its strained passages.  In the book’s final chapter, it shows how those who are not able fit into India’s current political atmosphere are still able build a better life for themselves despite the oppression they face.  While it is a flawed novel, it succeeds in addressing a topic that India will need to fix if the country is to become an inclusive society.

Red Notice : A True Story Of High Finance, Murder, And One Man’s Fight For Justice / Bill Browder

I was hesitant to pick up  Red Notice.  While the topic interested me, I questioned if a book written by a hedge fund manager would hold my interest.  What decided me was it focused on a piece of history that I wanted to learn more about: focusing on corruption and murder in Putin’s Russia.  Once I picked up this book, I found it difficult to put down.

Bill Browder, a hedge fund manager, founded Hemitage Capital Management, one of the first to invest in Russian businesses following the collapse of the Communist government.  He soon became the largest foreign investor in Russia’s newly democratic economy.  Over time, Browder became concerned about the country’s corruption.  Oligarchs were robbing the country blind while the average citizen lived in poverty.  But it was only after Putin became President and his hedge fund became a target of the government that he began to speak out against the country’s increasingly repressive regime.

The first third of the book highlights Browder’s rise in the financial world.  The rest of concentrates on Putin’s attempt to strip Browder’s fund of its assets, and the legal steps taken to  prevent it from taking part in the country’s economy.  To protect his interests, Browder hired Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer whose investigation uncovered financial robbery by  officials associated with Putin.  When Magnetsky testified in court with his evidence, he was the one who ended up being arrested.  After eleven months spent in police custody, he died due to mistreatment by prison guards.

This event changed Browder from focusing on finance concerns to becoming a human rights campaigner, seeking to win justice for Magnetsky and his family.  This involved him to campaign in the U.S., and later Europe, to have governments impose sanctions agains the Russian officials involved in Magnetsky’s death.  As a result, a law in this country was passed to freeze the assets of those involved, and banning them from entering the United States.  The European Union passed similar legistlation.

As a result this campaign,, Putin had an arrest warrant put out for Browder’s arrest.  Because of this, Browder had reason to fear for his life since a number of Russian citizens who spoke out against Magnetsky’s death have died under mystery circumstances.  While Browder spends too much time patting himself on his own back for opposing Putin’s  and the country’s oligarchs, the campaign to win justice for Magnetsky  was indeed a major accomplishment on his part.

Following the American election in 2016, the West became aware of the lengths Putin would go to disrupt its outcome.  Red Election shows in stark detail Russia’s culture of corruption and Putin’s destain for the rule of law.  The tale Browder presents is a truly harrowing, and a riveting one that highlights that Russian officials can never be trusted when proclaiming their innocence.  While the story’s  account Browder’s legal problem in Russian might  seem on the surface not to be an international affair, it shows what democracies across the global face in dealing with a government that will go any lengths to stay in power.