1.04.2010

what i'm reading double header

One of my goals for my winter break was to read. Just to sit down and read something for myself, something other than academic journal articles. I chose two titles, both short books and not challenging material. A modest goal, should be easily achieved. Yet this proved to be the biggest challenge of my month without school!

Why oh why is it so difficult to read a book?? I've been reading madly, voraciously all my life. Yet now if I don't set aside time dedicated specifically to a book, I can go for weeks without opening one. Low concentration (fibro-related) and being unable to read at night (fibro- and age-related!) don't help.

But I did it. Just barely got in under the wire before my classes begin tomorrow, but I did it. I read Malalai Joya's A Woman Among Warlords and Toni Morrison's A Mercy.

* * * *

A Woman Among Warlords is an important piece of the anti-war puzzle. Everyone who opposes the US and Canada's involvement in Afghanistan should read it, and everyone who supports that involvement should read it, too.

I'm thinking of a Canadian blogger who linked to me a while back, using wmtc as an example of everything that's wrong with progressive thought. Against my better judgement, I briefly discussed the war with him. He expressed shock when I referred to Afghanistan as an occupation, and amazement when I said the war has nothing to do with women's rights. He also called me a "masochist" for saying that bombing Afghanistan was not an appropriate response to 9/11. I wish he would read this book.

I'm thinking of a well-known Canadian pro-military blog whose members parrot the neocon lies about liberation and women's rights, who counter anti-war statements with "Don't the women of Afghanistan have the same right to freedom that you enjoy?" I wish they would read this book.

I'm thinking of many people who oppose both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but who know less about Afghanistan, and so don't feel as comfortable arguing against it. This book is for all of us.

Then there's Malalai Joya. To call her brave is some kind of crazy understatement. She is a leader of tremendous strength, courage, intelligence and insight. She is inspiring beyond measure. I hope you will read her book.

My reports, such as they are, from her talk in Toronto are here and here, and I posted a brief quote from the book here.

* * * *

A Mercy is one of Toni Morrison's best books, and certainly her best since Beloved, her masterpiece from 1987. It imagines life in the 17th Century, in the colonies that will become the United States, from the points of view of several different social strata.

Like Beloved, slavery is central to A Mercy, but in this book, we meet people who are not slaves, yet are not free. Indentured servants whose contracts can be bought, sold and unilaterally extended - men who have no control over where they live or for whom they work, and who are never paid for their labours. Girls born into families with no social standing or money for dowries, forced into marriage, prostitution, exile, or all three. These and other characters are not technically slaves, but neither can they be said to be free.

Poor people of all colours, we see, have no autonomy, no control over their lives. Chance events - a storm, a distant death, a bad mood - alter their life chances irrevocably. Not just alter the course of their life, as chance events do for all of us - but utterly wipe out their opportunities, in a way that someone with basic resources cannot experience.

A Mercy is, at bottom, a book about class, more than about colour.

It's also a book about women, and female survival - different methods of survival, different responses to the world of men that may ensnare them, save them, liberate them or kill them. And it's a book about family - birth, chosen, and accidental - and the limits of those bonds.

One thing Morrison does brilliantly is show us things we may never have fully imagined. What does a Native village ravaged by smallpox look like, and what happens to the survivors? What happens when a ship is lost at sea, and its human cargo is in chains? There are no lengthy descriptions of these events, just a sentence here and there. We get only a sideways glance, a telling detail - but those details burn with power, more gripping than if we had read pages of description.

It's a short book, but it will haunt you. I'm sure I will read it again, see new pictures, and find new layers of meaning.

4 comments:

johngoldfine said...

"Why oh why is it so difficult to read a book?? I've been reading madly, voraciously all my life. Yet now if I don't set aside time dedicated specifically to a book, I can go for weeks without opening one."

After my semester ends, after weeks of reading student dreck for hours every day (it's better writing than they were doing 15 weeks earlier, but it's still dreck...), I can't concentrate on books at all. I binge on netflix! I watched all 80-odd episodes of 'The Sopranos" in a two week span!

And then slowly, I find myself unwinding. I'm a quarter-way through 'Bleak House' in the past few days. I've picked up Trollope's 'Prime Minister' where I left it in October. I've started 'The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.'

It's a huge comfort to flop on the couch with two or three dogs and a book and to lose my self for a while in someone else's words and thoughts.

Of course, I'll be back in class in a few days....

L-girl said...

It's comforting to know this happens to other people!

Also, hooray for Bleak House! I did my a big paper on BH in university. I love it.

Good luck with the coming term. Do you get nerves in January, too, or only September? I woke up in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach, but now that I'm at school, I feel really good.

johngoldfine said...

I always have nerves at the beginning of a semester. I had a lucid dream night before last: I dreamed of the usual class problems, and in that actual dream I said to myself, 'Shit, you're already dreaming about school again.'

I first read BH for a college course 45 years ago.

What impresses me right now is Dickens' fluent and confident writing: the way he gaily slips back and forth between Esther's narration, certain characters' free indirect, and that rich, intense, highly personal omniscience. (Not that Dickens was sitting around the immortals' pantheon waiting for my approval....)

L-girl said...

and in that actual dream I said to myself, 'Shit, you're already dreaming about school again.'

Your subconscious is so postmodern. :)

Seriously though, it's amazing how much our dreams "know".

(Not that Dickens was sitting around the immortals' pantheon waiting for my approval....)

No, but it's wonderful to stumble on new ways to appreciate the artists we love. The moe time we spend with them, the more their
gifts multiply.