The Underground Girls of Kabul

Since 2001, when a coalition led by the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, a lot of attention was paid to the “rebuilding” of the Islamic republic. Most of what we hear in the news is focused on the deprivation, constant skirmishes between Taliban (and Taliban adjacent groups) attacking Western forces, corruption, and deplorable conditions for women and girls. It sounds like an overwhelmingly hopeless situation. Jenny Nordberg acknowledges these dire situations, but explores the nuances and reveals that even in such hopelessness, there’s small rays of resistance and hope still trying to take root.Underground

She frames this novel around several Afghani women and the story of their lives. One, Azarita, is a parliamentarian. In getting to know her family, she’s informed by the oldest twin sisters that their youngest brother isn’t a boy, but a girl. Nordberg investigates further and discovers that indeed the youngest child was born a girl, but has been presented to society and her family as a boy. She receives the priviledge of being a boy in the patriarchal society even though everyone knows that shes a girl. This concept fascinates Nordberg. As she investigates further, she realizes that there’s many girls who present as boys, called bascha posh, until they hit puberty and are then changed back into girls. In most cases, these girls are made into bascha posh because the family needs more income and only boys can work outside the home. There’s also a myth that if a daughter is bascha posh, then the next child will be a legitimate boy.

However, not all girls decide to change back into women when they hit puberty. A few decide that they do not want to give up their freedom and priviledge to be married off and be chattel to their husbands producing child after child. Many pass as long as they can until either their bodies no longer permit them to pass or their families force them. A few remain bascha posh until they are passed child bearing age. Nordberg found that even in a society that values boys over girls, these bascha posh are accepted as boys even though everyone knows they are born girls. This baffled me because it seems counterintuitive to a society that women are kept separate from boys and are viewed as merely a means to perpetuate bloodlines and produce boys, or girls that can used to barter debt or high bride prices. Yet it seems in Afghanistan that the society is willing not to question the decision parents make about how they present their child’s gender. It’s as if they are all complicit in perpetuating an illusion. These bascha posh are allowed to work, to be educated, to fight, to foster and maintain male friendships; everything that a natural-born boy would be able to do.

Nordberg investigated to see if this was a phenomena only in Afghanistan. She found that this is unique only to cultures that perpetuate strictly opressive patriarchies. That is nations like Albania and Montenegro there are women who are allowed to present themselves as men and access the male priviledge. Even in Western cultures there are examples like Joan of Arc who wore male battle gear and took the role of a military commander. There’s countless examples of women who passed as men to fight in wars. With the relaxation of the oppression of women, the need to pass as men has lessened, but Nordberg points out that in many cases, politics, business, and many other professions, Western women are still not allowed to be fully feminine. Nordberg points out too that in building Afghanistan’s democracy, the West imposed a 25% female representation in parliament, even though the U.K. only has 22% and the U.S. 15%. This shocked me and made me confront the hypocrisy the West gets itself into when building so called uncivilized nations. We don’t always practice what we preach.

While the situation of many of the women and bascha posh seems dire, Nordberg points out that there are rays of hope. The fact that there are still fathers who want more for their daughters than to be another man’s chattel. Instead of trying to focus solely on women and girls, Nordberg suggests that the nation builders include men in the conversation of gender quality. When men realize that women contribute to successful economies and that educated women are a matter of pride, men won’t see women as something to be ashamed or afraid of. And when the pressure to maintain a family’s status doesn’t rest solely on men, they too can progress and together men and women can help build Afghanistan into a safe, functioning nation.

Nordberg’s point about including men in the discussion of gender equality really hit home, especially in light of the #Metoo campaign and the call to restructure how we talk about sexual harrasment and assault. Too often we frame it around women in the passive voice. We need to include men in the discussion and empower them to confront the men who perpetuate this violence and discrimination. We can’t point fingers at the men of Afghanistan if we aren’t willing to confront the men in our own backyard.

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Alias Grace

“Alias Grace” is based on true events in mid-19th century Canada. Margaret Atwood takes a lot of artistic license to flesh out the story of Grace Marks, but she acknowledges the embellishments as well as the facts that hold the plot together. Alias

Grace is a recent Irish immigrant to the Toronto area and soon begins a life in service (maid) to make money for herself and to avoid being a “burden” to her alcoholic father. After making a good name for herself she finds an offer to be the made for Thomas Kinnear who lives some miles outside the city. This important choices leads to a crime that rocked the area and left many wondering what actually happened and if justice was served.

At first I thought this book was going to be about female autonomy and agency. We hear about the toil of women with no access to birth control who are overburdened with too many children. Then we see the exploitation of young women servants by the male employers (or their sons) or the precarious line a woman must walk in order to maintain a good reputation.

The focus shifts then to the idea of truth and whether we can really ever find out “what happened” when it comes to a crime or whether truth is manipulated to fit the narratives the accused want to tell and society wants to hear. I found this thread to be most interesting especially considering the plethora of true-crime docu-series proliferating on tv.

The focus shifts from the truth in crime to mental illness and the development of humane care for the mentally ill as well as discussions of what constitutes mental illness and how to tell if someone has been cured.

Ultimately the book ends on a very bland note. I felt that a lot of the important threads are just left for the reader to piece together. I found myself asking the dreaded question, “what was the point of all that?” There was a lot of potential but I feel like it was wasted. The writing itself is spectacular and drew me in as I plowed through the novel. By the end I found myself losing interest and having to almost force myself to read it.

This makes for a good book club discussion because, at least for me, I need some outside help to process and make sense of the content of this tome.

Americanah

I wasn’t sure what to expect from “Americanah.” I’ve heard many good things about Ms. Adichie’s work, but with the book being almost 600 pages I was afraid of committing to it. Am I glad I did. From the opening pages I was hooked into the characters and the plot. This book didn’t feel like I was reading it but rather that I was experiencing it. Americanah

We begin with present Ifemelu as she prepares to return to Nigeria, her country of origin. She’s spent her college and post-grad years in the U.S. but now decides it’s time to return home. The book flashes back and together Adichie weaves Ifemelu’s story through flashbacks and present-day episodes.

We also meet the character of Obinze, Ifemelu’s high school boyfriend. Several chapters are devoted to his point-of-view which adds commentary to Ifemelu’s perspective. Towards the end of the novel the past catches up to the present and the two perspectives merge, all done so seemlessly it’s hard to tell exactly where it happened.

There’s so many layers to this book it’s hard to pick just one. We could talk about modern-day Nigeria written by a Nigerian writer, the immigrant experience, the view of American race-relations from a non-American Black perspective, or about finding and maintaining love across decades, continents, and conflicts. All of these layers add depth to the characters and made me feel as if each one could step off the page and I’d know them immediately and we could grab coffee and pick up the story where it ends. Specifically, Adichie wrote some of the best male characters I’ve encountered from a female writer. I felt like many of them could’ve been men that I’ve known and grown up with.

All in all I would recommend this book as
a top read. It is a commitment. The layers of meaning and rich characters make it worth it in the end.

LaRose

“LaRose” begins with a tragedy. In an effort to make this tragedy right, Landreaux Irons, architect of the tragedy, offers his son LaRose to the Ravitch family. The Irons and Ravitch families have a long history as Nola Ravitch and Emmaline Irons are half-sisters. Landreaux and Peter Ravitch are hunting buddies. The rest of the novel explores what happens to all of the characters’ lives as a result of this event. LaRsoe

I struggled with this book, which isn’t often the case. The writing was done so well that I stopped seeing words and I was transported to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota and could see the sights, sounds, and smells. The problem was that the characters were too real, the problems too connected my own world, that someone like me who likes to escape from these things couldn’t with a book like this.

The plot itself was also a hurdle for me to leap in order to understand the masterful storytelling. The first ninety percent of the novel left me with a headache trying to figure out why I was being exposed to seemingly random events in the lives of some very complicated characters. It didn’t make sense until I had a conversation with my wife in which I was complaining about all of this when she asked me, “how do you tell the story of a life or how do you tell the ripple effects of a major event in a close-knit community?” Suddenly it all made much more sense.

I had to embrace the chaos and disjointed connections because that’s what life is. There’s not a beginning to end line that connects our births to our deaths and that’s not how we connect our lives to others’. Erdrich reminds us that no one’s life is unconnected from someone else’s. This was both an unsettling and beautiful reminder of what it means to be part of a community.

Dreamland

We’ve heard a lot about the opiate/opiod crisis. “Dreamland” takes readers on a journey of how this crisis began and what factors contributed to this health emergency. Sam Quinones takes a journalistic approach to exploring the roots of the crisis. He begins in a Mexican state, Xalisco. In there state there’s not many job opportunities outside of farming/ranching. At the same time, there’s a very competitive socio-economic culture where everyone is trying to beat the Jones’s next door. Some have immigrated to the U.S., particularly southern California. To try and improve their lot in life and increased their family’s standing, some of the young men have gone to work with their relatives in California. Many of them discovered that these relatives were doing well because they began working in the drug trade. Now, before you think this is a plank in Trump’s anti-Mexican agenda, Quinones contextualizes this by explaining that these immigrants from Xalisco are a small subset of immigrants and that they do not represent all Mexican immigrants. Back to Xalisco. The Xalisco drug trade became highly successful due to avoiding the Colombian cocaine and other large-scale drug syndicates. Instead they focused on selling black tar heroin in the suburbs of many large cities ranging from Portland to Columbus, Ohio.Dreamland

The introduction of black tar heroin in the suburbs coincided with the over-prescribing of opiates in many areas of the country. Unfortunately, these two drugs coincided in many suburban areas creating and sustaining increasingly high levels of addiction. Part of the problem is most of the hardest hit communities have lost a lot of their social programs because of the job loss due to jobs being shipped overseas. So not only are there a lot of addicts, but there’s no social programs to help support addiction recovery. On top of this, there was no support from state and federal governments. People weren’t willing to help addicts. They were (and still are) stigmatized.

One of the moving parts of the book is the personal stories of families who have lost loved ones to addiction. So many families have been ravaged by opiate addiction. Because so many people have been affected it has started getting the attention of local and federal representatives. One of the saddest elements of this story is that it wasn’t until many White communities were affected that real change began to happen. During the crack crisis of the 80’s, which tended to affect Urban Black communities, instead of helping community services to help addicts recover, addicts were jailed. It’s as if the U.S. thought it would jail it’s way out of the crack crisis. With the opiate crisis people are wanting more compassionate approaches to fighting the crisis. Hopefully we will learn our lesson from the past.

One of the things I didn’t like about this book is that it dragged on too long. There came a point at the end where it seemed Quinones wasn’t sure how to end the book. He also kept repeating the phrase, “they sold black tar heroin like pizza.” It was repeated so often it almost became a trigger. All in all I think this is a good read for those who aren’t familiar with how this crisis came about and what some are doing to stem the tide of addiction.

The Birchbark House

I had originally read Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House back in June 2014 when I was looking at teaching more literature written by and about Native Americans. I decided to revisit the book because I thought it would work with a new unit I was putting together for my American Literature course.  Unfortunately, I read the book too late to make into booklists for this school year.  This wasn’t too much of a loss because I’m still torn about whether to actually teach it or not.Birchbark

One of the main problems is that the main character is much younger than my students and the point-of-view is very much tied to her age.  While books like To Kill a Mockingbird have juvenile protagonists, the point-of-view seems more geared towards adults.  The Birchbark House seems much more geared towards middle-school.  The devil’s advocate voice in my head argues that sometimes it’s ok for high schoolers to read things below their reading levels seeing as how adults do it all the time.  So I’m torn.

The other problem is, I’m looking for a work that fits into the time before the Europeans arrived.  The Birchbark House is after the Europeans arrive, specifically the voyageurs. I’m trying to contrast the way of life for the Native Americans prior to the European invasion and then compare that to their way of life after.  It feels like there’s a big hole in American literature where we don’t talk about this monumental shift.  I feel like all the students get is Squanto, Sakagawea, and maybe Chief Joseph.

I’m asking a lot of The Birchbark House, and it’s not the book’s fault that it can’t meet the standards.  It is a good book and it does give voice to an important time and place in Native American literature.  Next year I may just teach it and see how it goes.  There’s no harm in trying, right?

Fluent in 3 Months

Benny Lewis has a blog that he’s turned into this book. Throughout the book he relates his experience learning languages from high school until now as well as what his tips and resources are for learning and maintaining new languages. As someone who’s looking to learn more languages, but who doesn’t have time to take classes I’ve been looking for resources for how to this in a more DIY method.Fluent

Like many people Mr. Lewis took language classes in high school but found he couldn’t converse in these languages once he left school. He then moved to Spain and realized he needed to learn Spanish in order to feel like he was mixing into the culture and community. From this experience he developed a method that has helped him further languages.

One of the ideas that made me stop and think was the idea of “fluency.” Mr. Lewis challenges language learners to consider what their goal is learning a language. Too many times new language learners set a goal become “fluent” in another language and this vague term leads them to abandon their project because they don’t appear to make any progress. Instead, Mr. Lewis posits that language learners should set more specific “fluent” goals. For example, are you wanting to understand the lyrics to music in new language? Movies? Have simple conversations? Be able to have political or specific-content discussions? Choosing something specific gives you a goal to work towards which helps guide what vocabulary you learn, what conversational patterns to learn and practice and ultimately gives you something practical to measure your progress against.

I’ve fallen into the trap of becoming “fluent” in only to give up a few months in because I didn’t feel like I was making progress. Now, taking Mr. Lewis’s advice into consideration, I’m sorting languages into those that I want to be able a specific task (Understand Hebrew in Israeli films) or those that I want to be able to converse in different styles and understand any media (French and German). Mr. Lewis gives many resources for how to arrange your study habits in order to achieve your language goals.

One of the critiques I have for this book is that I wish he gave more specific details of the resources he used/recommends. Instead, he mentions them and describes what the resource can do for you. Then gives you the link for where you can find further resources on his website. This is great, but it feels like the book is more like a commercial for the website. So if you’re looking for examples and samples of resources for language this book is only going to scratch the surface. What this book does accomplish is that it gives some good philosophical approaches to language learning.

Charlotte Temple

“Charlotte Temple” was not what I was expecting. At best I was hoping for a Jane Austen-type read, seeing as how the author’s overlapped. I was also looking for early American novel to potentially teach to my students. Unfortunately, I neither enjoyed reading this book, nor will I teach it to my students. The main problem with this book is that it’s very problematic for a modern reader. I don’t see how anyone could sit down and read and enjoy this. I think this work is better served in college where one can dissect the writing, plot, and period in which it was crafted. There is interesting literary value, but not much entertainment value.Charlotte

Susanna Rowson uses the character of Charlotte Temple to scare young woman into being pure, virtuous creatures who must be obedient to their parents or else might end up as someone’s baby mamma in a foreign country, no reputation, friendless, poor, and…we’ll stop there before the spoilers start. By the end of the novel I was almost sorry for the way Ms. Rowson treated Charlotte. The Charlotte character is used as Ms. Rowson’s moral punching bag. So many terrible things happen that I had a hard time believing someone could have that much bad luck. And then there was all the writing.

The “Norton Anthology” from which I read this piece had an introduction in which they explained that Ms. Rowson was part of the post-colonial sentimentalist writers. It would be hard for anyone to argue against this seeing as how all of the characters either cry themselves unrecognizable or are constantly fainting whenever things get tough. I think my hurts from rolling everyone someone burst into tears or fainted.

Now, what I did find interesting was that Ms. Rowson does critique the attitude that young women who make a mistake and are considered “immoral” or “without virtue”, should not be castigated for the rest of their lives. She argues that they should be helped back into society and supported so that they don’t keep making the same mistakes or so that the consequences don’t lead them to a more dire situation in life. Rarely do you see someone in this early 19th century period come out in support of women who have eloped or had a child out of wedlock, so on one hand I do think this is an interesting piece on that point.

As important as this social critique is, it wasn’t enough for me to recommend this book to anyone. The caveat to this is, I would if you’re going to be studying the period and the ethics of the day. Otherwise, skip this and head right for Jane Austen.

The Contrast

“The Contrast,” according to my “Norton Anthology” was the first American bestselling drama. We’ve come along ways since, but for a play at the turn of the 18th century it’s not bad. I read it to see if I could teach this in my American literature course to supplement a lot of the non-fiction that usually comes in most high school anthologies.Contrast

This is basically a comedy of errors mixed with some irony. Leititia, Charlotte, and Maria are the three female protagonists. Charlotte is the mean queen bee (Regina George), Leitita is the wealthy beta (Gretchen Wieners), and Maria is the sappy, emo member of the group (Karen, just with more brains and a lot more emo). The male protagonists are made up of Manly, Dimple, Jessamy, and Jonathan. Manly is Charlotte’s sotic brother, Dimple is the caddish rake, Jessamy is the creepy social climber, and Jonathan is the country bumpkin.

The crux of the plot hinges around Maria’s engagement to Dimple. Charlotte and Leititia judge her because she’s going to marry Dimple even though she doesn’t love him. This causes most of Maria’s dialogue to consist of her bemoaning marrying someone her heart doesn’t love but her head knows that it’s a good match for money and family.

Dimple on the other hand doesn’t care for Maria much either and late in the play we realize just how much he doesn’t love her. Let’s just say he’s trying to play the field.

Manly “happens” to open the door to the wrong house and finds Maria in her parlor and they have a grand ol’ time, which leads to both of them becoming all angsty that they can’t be together. Can’t you see how funny this all is?!

I will say that it reads better than I’m describing it and the ending is somewhat comical when everyone gets what’s coming to him/her. This is definitely a more classical use of “comedy” in which it’s not so much “hahahaha” funny, but “ouch, I’m laughing because that’s true and I’m uncomfortable for being called out on in in a work of fiction like this” funny.

If I were teaching a college class I would certainly teach this piece. There’s a lot here for students to see the roots of what would become American Literature. In fact, the reason I can even relate “Mean Girls” to this play is because this play has all of the elements that later writers would use to portray American comedy. So if you curious to know what early American drama is like, I would recommend this read. It’s short, sweet, and too the point and you’ll be edifying your literary diet.

Make Your Home Among Strangers

Jennine Capo Crucet’s “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” is a novel set during the Elian Gonzalez conflict of the late 90’s. A young woman, Lizet, finds herself coming home for Thanksgiving from her first year at college at the same time as Elian arrives into Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.Strangers

The main conflict in the novel is Lizet coming to terms with being the first in her family to attend college. She’s struggling not just with homesickness, but with culture shock, academic rigor, implicit bias, and feeling like she’s abandoned her family. She’s also processing a sudden change in her family makeup and feels overwhelmed with all of these changes.

Throughout the novel, Ms. Crucet crafts non-archetyped characters. While many of the characters seem like they would fit into neat little stereotyped boxes, we are presented with nuance and development that gives us a more complex view the world in Hialeah and Little Havana. Specifically, we are shown the characters’s motivations for their actions. While it’s hard to agree/affirm their decisions, there’s no denying that the characters feel that they are making the best decision they can with the life they’re facing.

Several of the minor conflicts that are developed really hit home with me. The first is the subtle racism and implicit bias that Lizet faces when she arrives at her college in New York. The way her roommate and neighbors treat her, you’d think they’d never met another hispanic girl. They ask her the most stereotypical and patronizing questions that made me roll my eyes with the ignorance of it all. Even while I’m face-palming the girls’ actions and questions, once again Ms. Crucet’s sharp writing keeps these White girls from being demonized. Yes, they are ignorant, but again, it’s because they’ve never been taught or exposed to a world outside their privileged bubble.

This conflict bleeds into another sub-conflict that is woven into the plot of the novel. Socio-economics plays a big factor into how students relate to one another, and to how Lizet’s community views her as she steps into a world that they see as not theirs. Lizet soon meets other students from similar socio-economic statuses and realizes that while they may not be all the same race, they have similar conflicts and can relate to the trials overcoming these obstacles.

This was one of those books I wanted everyone around me to read just so I could talk about it with them. When art imitates life, it’s hard not to want to hear how others related to the conflicts or their thoughts on how character development played out. The “real” factor of the book was the most moving element of this book. It felt like any of these characters could be a real person. They were all so complex it made me want to follow each of them around separately just so I could find out more of their story.

I appreciated that the conflicts in the book were developed in such a way that it didn’t seem to overtake the characters. I didn’t feel that this book was “about” race, class, immigration, or higher-ed. Yet, you can’t ignore that these topics are part of Lizet’s experience. This is a highly recommended read. Hat’s off to you, Ms. Crucet!