Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

Book Review: The Foundling by Ann Leary

Image of a digital book cover. A blueish greenish gloom settles over a vista of the tops of connected buildings with one light glowing in one window.

It’s 1927, and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle thinks she’s found her way to independence and success when she starts working as a secretary for a woman doctor at a remote institute for mentally disabled women. But not everything is as it appears to be at Nettleton State.

It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing AgeShe’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

I read Ann Leary’s contemporary fiction The Good House last winter (review) and was excited to read her new one and further intrigued to see it was a piece of historic fiction. In spite of being very different from that piece of contemporary fiction, this book lived up to it quite well with richly imagined settings, complex and flawed characters, and an honest depiction of alcohol.

The author discovered this aspect of history – the forced institutionalization of women deemed “feebleminded” in the 1920s for the express eugenics purpose of preventing them from having children – while researching her own family genealogy. (Please be aware that “feebleminded” is a pejorative in modern times. In the 1920s, it was a term used clinically to classify patients.) Her grandmother worked briefly as a secretary at such an institution. The author was made curious by the name of the institution and thus the research that led to this novel was borne. Read more about her perspective on the research process, connection to her family, and the history of this treatment of women.

One of my favorite aspects of Leary’s writing is the characters. She’s not afraid to let them be flawed. In this case, the flaws are partially a reflection of the flaws of the times and partially innate to the characters themselves. No one in this book is perfect, and yet you find yourself rooting for them anyway. It can be difficult from a modern perspective to understand why Mary’s initial reaction to the asylum is positive. Or why she doesn’t trust or believe Lillian right away. But this book does an eloquent job of showing why that is, for personal and societal reasons, and letting Mary grow and change on her own.

Another strength is in making the horrific problems clear without dwelling on them in a gratuitous way. By the end of the book, the reader knows exactly what’s wrong as the asylum, but it remained straight-forward and succinct about it. I dislike it when historical books about difficult issues have scenes that feel like they could have come from a Saw movie. This book avoids that well.

The book also highlights the very serious issues for interracial couples. But there is an interfaith couple for whom the same attention isn’t paid. It felt a bit pie in the sky to not directly address the issues facing a Jewish/Catholic couple in the 1920s. Especially when the Catholic half of the couple is serious enough about her faith that she attends weekly Mass and worries about when she can have Confession. This is a level of seriousness about her faith that made me question how she seemed to not worry at all about the issues facing her in an interfaith relationship. Given the attentive detail given to the interracial couple, it felt even more like a weakness.

I was interested as to how the author would handle alcohol in this 1920s historic piece given The Good House is largely about a woman struggling with alcoholism. Alcohol is not the focus of the book, but it is featured in ways that are realistic to the 1920s. In other words, while Prohibition is still in existence during the book, alcohol is pervasive in society. The downfalls of alcohol are well depicted, again, without being too gratuitous.

Overall, this is a well-researched and crafted piece of historic fiction that covers difficult ground with grace. Recommended to fans of historic fiction. But keep in mind the romance is a subplot in this one.

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codes. Thank you for your support!

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol

African-American girl standing near a pole.Summary:
Jonathan Kozol’s books about his social justice work among inner city children in the 1980s and 1990s brought attention to the starkly uneven educational opportunities presented to children in America.  Now the children he originally met are young adults, and through this memoir telling of his friendships with them, he explores their lives and what it means to be successful when everything is stacked against you.

Long-time followers of my blog know that my undergraduate university (Brandeis University) seeks to instill in its students a sense of social justice, and that certainly worked with me.  So when books like this pop up, I’m instantly interested in reading them.  True equality means equal opportunities and safety for all, and a book like this is a bit unique in that it doesn’t just look at inequalities but also examines the long-term effects of attempts at intervening and helping people who basically got the short end of the stick.  Kozol succeeds quite well in analyzing what has worked and what hasn’t in the Bronx where a large part of his social justice career has been.

The chapters each focus on a different child, although a couple of children get their own chapters.  Kozol met the children either in one of the infamous 1980s NYC homeless shelters or at an after-school tutoring program offered at a church (St Ann’s) in the Bronx.  There are a few things that are immediately apparent from observing the long-term trajectory of these kids, which is why a book like this is so valuable for social justice work.

First, all of the kids who were homeless or who spent a long time in homeless shelters had many more problems and difficulties later in life.  It is clear that homelessness has a long-lasting negative impact on children, no matter how many good opportunities come to them later in life.  Similarly, girls seem to stand a better chance than boys of climbing out of the poverty they grew up in.  Kozol never makes any clear speculative statements as to why he thinks this is, but the multiple lives we observe clearly demonstrate that boys are more targeted than girls both by the crime lords and by the police.  They are both presumed to want to participate in crime and presumed to already be participating in crime.  If you live in just this neighborhood and see just this world where almost everyone you see except maybe a parent or a teacher expects you to become a criminal, it’s no wonder that the boys are struggling more than the girls.  This is a great example of how patriarchy hurts men too.  These assumptions about masculinity and roles in the community are hurting them.

The other big theme of the book is of course how educational inequality entrenches classism and racism.  Kozol has spent most of his career working in improving education so it’s not surprising this is a theme of the book.  One thing that stood out to me was how quickly kids are lost if they never get a firmly established literacy and sense of confidence in their ability to learn.  Once kids start getting held back a grade or fall below grade level, it is incredibly easy to become discouraged and turn to what appears to be an easier life of crime.  And it’s not the kids’ fault that they are struggling at school.  The class sizes are too large, the teachers are frequently inexperienced or, in the case of one school, were never even trained as teachers at all.  There is frequent teacher turnover, too heavy of a focus on just getting the kids to pass the achievement tests and not establish real learning and literacy.  There is a real problem with violence and bullying.  The list goes on and on.  It goes beyond the schools though.  Outside of school the children are never truly safe.  There are shootings and stabbings and rapes, and we’re not talking down an alley. We’re talking in the lobby or stairwell or elevator of their apartment buildings.  How can anyone focus on learning and growing up when that is all around them?  It’s a big problem, and one that is not easily solved.

Kozol ends the book by talking about what he sees as progress and how the now grown-up kids he worked with see possible solutions.  He’s adamant that even small gains are gains.  He views any child whose life ultimately is one of peace and self-worth as an accomplishment, whether they even completed high school or not.  To a certain extent I agree with him, but to a certain extent I agree much more with one of the grown-up kids (who just so happens to be about my age) who argues that small changes aren’t good enough.  That the inequality is so deeply entrenched that we must truly rock the system and not just save one child at a time.  She does ultimately agree that the small changes are still worthy of praise and is working on a degree in sociology so she may go back to the Bronx and focus in on small changes. That then is the question at the heart of this book and one for which there are no easy answers. How do we fix this problem?

It’s difficult to say who this book will appeal to.  It’s not a clear treatise on the educational system or social justice.  It is one man’s observations of the lives and life stories of inner city youth he worked with.  It is not academic per se but it’s also not exactly a memoir either.  I think perhaps that it will appeal most to anyone whose day to day job involves having small influences on the education of individuals.  It clearly shows how much impact one person can have on another person’s life, particularly when it comes to education and literacy.

Overall then I recommend this to those who work in education whether formally or informally.  It is encouraging to see the perspective of an older person who has clearly seen how his life work has impacted the kids he worked with.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Netgalley

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Friday Fun! (In Which I Take Back Up Counted Cross-Stitching and Blog Tour Updates)

July 27, 2012 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

I’ve been trying to keep things kind of quiet in my non-work life right now, since work is so busy with the beginning of the medical school academic year.  So I don’t have too terribly much to tell you except that I now have something besides cooking and cleaning that I’m doing when listening to audiobooks.  I’ve taken back up counted cross-stitching.

I’ve been searching for a crafty/productive hobby for a bit now.  Knitting could only progress as far as scarves before things started to get thrown across the room.  I couldn’t even learn how to do one stitch in crocheting.  I knew I was capable of counted cross-stitching (and embroidery) because it was forced upon me….er, I learned it as a kid.  However, I had this perception of it as being something steeped in old lady and overtly religious patterns.  And then I saw something on tumblr.

It was a counted cross-stitch that quoted Fight Club saying, “Condoms are the glass slipper of our generation,” and had a glass slipper on the bottom.  I about died laughing.  And then I discovered the world of punk stitching, which is what the non-traditional stitchers call it.  I was immediately excited and intrigued.

So I picked up a cross-stitching kit (before getting into designing my own patterns or buying other homemade patterns) to make sure that I wasn’t misremembering my abilities.  After much hunting I found a wintry wolf scene that I thought would go well in my Native American themed bedroom area in my tiny apartment.  I completed 400 stitches the first time I sat down. And I was remembering correctly. This is something I am good at!  This is something that bafflingly relaxes me!  All the counting and organizing that I so adore, and I wind up with prettiness!  I am beyond excited about this rediscovered hobby, as my new pinterest board of patterns probably demonstrates. 🙂

In Waiting For Daybreak blog tour news, this was quite an exciting week!  It’s the fullest week of the tour we’ve had so far, and the variety of blogs visited was super-fun for me.

From Me To You… had previously reviewed my novella, Ecstatic Evil, and I was so glad she agreed to participate in the tour for my new, decidedly not paranormal romance, book.  She conducted an awesome interview with me that features pictures to enhance various answers plus she was the first to ask me who I would cast in a movie as Frieda and Mike.  On the same entry as the interview, she reviews the book, saying, “This is one high-intensity novel that will hold you until the end.”

The Paperback Pursuer offered up a review stating, “I was blown away by Amanda McNeil’s ability to develop such a unique and troubled character who every reader can relate to on some level.”

Kelsey’s Cluttered Bookshelf has an interview with me up where you can find out things like my future writing goals and advice for other writers.  She is also offering a giveaway!

Bookishly Me also has an interview up in which I talk about the research I conducted for the book, among other things.

Last but certainly not least, Fangs for the Fantasy offers up a review from a social justice perspective stating, “But even better than a realistic and well-presented depiction of mental illness, we also have it become a strength in the zombie apocalypse.”

A big thank you again to all of the participants!  I’m so glad folks have been enjoying the tour so far.

Happy weekends!

Mini Movie Reviews #1

July 17, 2012 2 comments

I feel like I generally don’t have quite as much to say about movies as I do about books.  Perhaps that’s because they only take an hour or two of my time, whereas books you live with for several hours, even days or weeks.  In any case, although I really don’t watch much tv (and when I do, it tends to be nonfiction like cooking shows), I do periodically watch movies.  Some of them popular, some of them older or documentaries you might not know about.  After having seen mini reviews on other folks’ pages, I decided this format would be ideal for my movie reviews.  A movie will periodically get a fully fleshed-out review if I have a lot to say about it.

So here we go, in the order in which I watched them.

Woman in Amsh bonnetThe Shunning
Not Rated
Contemporary Drama
4 out of 5 stars

I read the original bonnet books back when I was in middle school, which started with The Shunning.  I was happy to see it pop up on my Netflix.  (I believe it was a made for tv movie, possibly for the Hallmark channel?)  This isn’t your typical bonnet romance.  Katie Lapp is struggling with the idea of her marriage to a man she doesn’t love after the death of her first love.  She also likes playing guitar and singing, which is frowned upon in the Amish community.  When she learns that she is adopted, her whole world is rocked.  It’s a great film both to see Amish life and to consider issues of identity and adoption.  I can think of quite a few of my friends and followers who would enjoy it

Unspeakable Acts
Not Rated
3 out of 5 stars

It’s odd, I generally don’t go for courtroom drama books, but the movies sometimes work for me.  This one from 1990 is about the daycare child abuse scare that happened in the 1980s and looks at the groundbreaking case that made certain aspects of children testifying easier in court.  One fun thing, one of the mothers is Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith from Frasier), and it was pretty….odd seeing her in a loving mother role.  This docudrama addresses the controversial methods of questioning toddlers about situations at daycares.  The movie falls solidly on the pro-questioning side.  I enjoyed it.  It was a bit slow-moving and sometimes the acting was a bit over-the-top, but it does a good job encouraging parents to be communicative with each other and to actually bother to ask their kids questions like they are real people (which indeed they are).  Some viewers might be disturbed by the graphic descriptions of child abuse.

Creature from the Black Lagoon holding a woman in a white swimsuit.Creature From the Black Lagoon
Not Rated
4 out of 5 stars

I’ve been working my way through the 100 Horror Movies to See Before You Die, starting with the ones available on Netflix.  This one is about a group of scientists who think they’ve discovered an artifact of the missing link in human evolution deep in the Amazon.  They get there and of course discover that the missing link is actually a living creature.  Let me just say upfront, yes it is abundantly obvious that this is one of those movies about white guys being scared of non-white guys stealing their women.  Bare that in mind when watching this, and you will come away with a totally different viewing than those who don’t.  It’s easy to see why it became a classic. The underwater shots are absolutely incredible.  There are in particular these scenes wherein the woman is swimming in a gorgeous pure white swimsuit (I know, I know), and the creature is swimming underneath her in tandem.  How they pulled that off in the 1950s, I don’t know.  It is a highly watchable film and a great way to start a discussion of the racism in the 1950s.  Perhaps even to try to convince those who would say otherwise that the good old days weren’t really so good.  Side-note: there is a great scene where the woman scientist and the dude she’s dating are asked when they are gonna get married. It’s been a while. Only to find out they’ve been dating 6 months. o_O

Image of movie theater with arrows in it.Reel Injun
Not Rated
5 out of 5 stars

This documentary looks at the stereotypes and use of Native Americans in American cinema as a lens for considering Native identity and the American Indian Movement (AIM, the name for the Native American civil rights movement).  The documentary eloquently moves decade by decade, presenting clips and interviewing actors, directors, and AIM activists.  It completely blew my mind.  For instance, I didn’t know that during the silent movie era there was a strong group of Native filmmakers who made their own, powerful movies.  It was when the talkies came that the cowboy and Indian trope came about and also when every Native everywhere was re-written as a Plains Indian. For ease.  Then in the 1970s and 1980s after the civil rights era, we started to get the ass-kicking Natives as a reflection of the anger in the movement.  It’s impossible to come even close to telling you all everything I learned or how powerful the movie was for me.  I will say, though, that I found the part about how Marlon Brando turned down his Oscar due to the treatment of Natives in cinema by sending Sacheen Littlefeather up in full Apache clothing to turn it down for him completely shocking.  I had no idea that such a movement exists in Hollywood, but it does, as is also evidenced by Clint Eastwood’s involvement in this documentary.  It’s encouraging to hear that not everyone in Hollywood sits by while this shit goes down.  In any case, a powerful documentary and a great starting point for getting your feet wet in the Native American civil rights movement.

Man wrapped in bandages, man looking at test tube.The Invisible Man
Not Rated
2 out of 5 stars

Another entry in the 100 Horror Movies to See Before You Die.  A scientist manages to make himself invisible but doesn’t have an antidote ready. Also he goes crazy. Allow me to say, yes I realize this is super-old and they still managed to do the slowly revealing the invisible dude scenes, which is an amazing achievement in cinema.  Watch clips of those parts on youtube.  The storyline itself is super boring and not well structured, and the science is rather shoddily done.  It was good for a few laughs. For the first 55 minutes. The rest was suffering and wanting to rip my hair out.  I think one of my live tweets from watching it sums it up best, “The best part of this movie is the knowledge that this dude is running around nekkid.” Because his clothes are visible, you see.

That’s about a month’s worth of movies.  Stay tuned for more quick thoughts next month!

Source: Unless otherwise noted, all movies watched via Netflix.

Book Review: The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change by Roger Thurow

Kenyan woman standing in a field.Summary:
Smallholder farmers make up the majority of Kenya’s food production and yet they face multiple challenges from inefficient planting techniques to bad seed markets that lead to an annual wanjala–hunger season.  One Acre Fund, an ngo, saw the gap and came in with a vision.  Sell farmers high quality seeds and fertilizers on credit, delivered to their villages, on the condition they attend local farming classes.  Roger Thurow follows four families as they try out becoming One Acre farmers.

Every once in a while there’s a book that you know will impact your entire life.  I know this is one of those books.

Thurow strikes the perfect balance between narrating the farmers’ lives and knowledgeably discussing the global politics and environmental problems that also impact the hunger.  The information he hands out would be riveting in any case, but how he narrates it kicks it up to another level.

Central to the book is this question:

Why were people still dying of hunger at the beginning of the twenty-first century when the world was producing—and wasting—more food than ever before? (location 202)

I know we all know there is hunger in the world, but it can be easy to ignore when it doesn’t have a face like David or Dorcas, two of the children featured whose mothers flat out do not have food to give them.  During the wanjala, since it is most of the families’ first years using One Acre Fund, they do not have enough maize (their staple crop) from the year before.  Thus while watching their fields grow, they don’t have enough food to feed their families.  During the height of the wanjala the families routinely have tea for breakfast and lunch and maybe some boiled vegetables or bananas for dinner.  And they still must farm and go to school.  I can’t recall the last time I’ve been so humbled.

Don’t get me wrong.  The families profiled in this book aren’t put on a pedestal or romanticized or distanced.  They are very real.  But their strength and wisdom in the face of so many challenges has no other option but to be inspirational.  Because it is so real.

You don’t focus on the afflictions you have, on your poverty; you focus on where you are going. (location 1469)

Makes you feel bad for complaining about morning commutes, doesn’t it?

Beyond talking about the disgusting fact that there is still hunger in a world with so much plenty and demonstrating the resilience of the families, the book also discusses One Acre Fund’s poverty fighting ideas.  Basically they operate on the teach a man to fish principle.  Thurow talks about how Youn, the founder, believes that bringing in food aid to feed farmers is absurd.  We should instead be helping them to farm better.  Beyond it not being sustainable to feed everyone year after year, it robs the farmers of their dignity.  This was the point I liked best.  These people are not dumb or lazy.  They are victims of a system that is not working.  Helping them help themselves lets them retain their humanity and dignity.  I think that’s something that is often missing in charity work and ngos, but it’s vital to truly changing the game.

Overall, if you want a book that will challenge your perceptions, humble you, broaden your horizons, and help you see how to truly fight global poverty, this is the book for you.  In other words, this is recommended for everyone.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Counts For:
Specific country? Kenya
map of africa

Book Review: Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving by Donna Britt

January 19, 2012 3 comments

Old photograph in bottom right corner of Britt's family.Summary:
Now in her fifties, Donna Britt, an award-winning and ground-breaking black, female journalist, takes a look back at her life to see what has influenced her the most.  She is unsurprised to find that her life has largely been affected by loving and giving to brothers–black men she’s both related to and not.  From growing up surrounded by three blood brothers, to loving brothers, to raising them, Britt discusses the universal influence heterosexual women’s love for men has on their lives, as well as the unique aspect of loving a race of men persecuted in the United States and raising her three boys in the face of the odds stacked against them.

Britt’s career as a writer shows in her memoir.  It is the most well put-together memoir I’ve read in quite some time.  Each chapter looks at a key event in her life in order of it being lived, but also looks at the impact those events had on her as a person.  She does this by starting with a photograph and an anecdote related to the event, then moves on to describing the event in detail.  Everything in her life, though, is impacted by her brother, Darrell’s, death at the hands of two policemen in his early 20s.  This terribly unjust incident and how it flavors the rest of her life is the simplest and most effective anti police brutality message I’ve ever read.  Was her brother threatening the officers? Maybe.  But all it would have taken was for those two men to aim to stop rather than to kill to prevent the loss of someone’s loved one.  Britt says later in her memoir that she knows that those officers just saw “a crazy black man” and not a person, and it is now her goal to always see the person, not the stereotype.

Britt, like other memoirists I’ve enjoyed, never takes a “poor me” attitude or tone, in spite of the fact that she really could given the loss of her brother, being raped, and a first marriage to a man who soon got lost in cocaine addiction.  Not to mention her second husband’s affair.  Yet, through all of this, Britt’s resilience is evident.  She constantly tries to improve not just the world but herself.  Britt has an ability to look at herself without rose-tinted glasses.  She knows her own faults, primarily that she’s a perfectionist and expects too much from people.  I think that’s what makes her so relatable and sympathetic.  She’s an imperfect person struggling in an imperfect world, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t right about the injustices she’s seen throughout her life.

I think any female reader who has a brother can understand the other central question in Britt’s memoir–How exactly did these boys who were our brothers who loved us and pranked us and guarded us with their fists when we were young grow up into these baffling men?  Boys are easy to understand.  Men, not so much.  That’s even the case with Britt’s own brothers, one of whom grew from a rebel into a religious man who changes his name from Steve to Melech and whom she barely speaks to anymore.  Why is it when boys become men and we go from girls to women that communication becomes so hard?  Hard, but rewarding and not impossible.  Sure, no answers are offered, but it’s nice to see this experience through someone else’s eyes.

Beyond social justice and the universal communication difficulties between men and women, Britt’s memoir also clearly demonstrates an issue that is sometimes hard to explain–that of privilege.  Those born with privilege sometimes have a hard time understanding what, exactly, it is those without it are speaking about.  I sometimes wonder myself if I’d understand privilege if I’d been born a white MAN instead of a white WOMAN.  Britt with a gift of subtlety makes this clear.  She talks about needing to be extra perfect, extra good in order to combat the stereotype of the useless black children.  Of feeling like she’s representing the entire race when she’s the only black student in her graduate class.  Of the fact that maybe if her brother had been white and acting crazy the cops might not have shot him.  Of being extra concerned when her son shoplifts because he probably wouldn’t get away with just a slap on the wrist if he got caught.  Instead of talking loudly about privilege, it’s simply evident throughout her entire life and the lives of those around her.  I would hope that anyone reading this would start to see how inequality survives today, even if it’s not as institutionalized as it once was.

Overall, this is a powerful memoir by a humble woman that again demonstrates why it’s important to listen to the life stories of those older than us.  There is always something to learn or to relate to from their life journey.  I, naturally, don’t always agree with Britt or her choices, but I respect her commitment to living the best life she can.

I recommend this memoir to fans of the genre, especially, but also to those with an interest in racism in 20th century America and relationships between men and women.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees (BAND): November Discussion: Reading for a Cause

November 8, 2011 22 comments

BAND is a monthly discussion group of book bloggers who love nonfiction!  If you’d like to join us, check out our tumblr page.

I am super excited to get to host BAND this month!  Because, well, who doesn’t love talking about something they love, right?

I firmly believe in knowledge being power.  This is how my dad raised me, and I am forever grateful for that.  The more knowledge you have the more strongly you can support your cause.  This idea was further developed in me when I went to Brandeis University for undergrad.  Brandeis is built around the concept of social justice, and in all of our classes we learned that you can change the world one mind at a time.

Even though I’m out of Brandeis now, I’ve done my best to apply this concept to my reading.  I seek to constantly attain greater knowledge in areas that matter to me.  Pick your cause and read all about it, essentially.

My very first cause was the health and obesity crisis in the US.  I was unhealthy.  My family was unhealthy.  Most of Americans are unhealthy, so I started reading about alternatives to the way I was raised (the SAD–Standard American Diet).  I read a wide arrange of information including excerpts from The China Study, The Blood Type Diet, Vegetarianism for Dummies, and many many more from back before my book blogging days that I unfortunately did not keep good track of.  I still have a section of my tbr pile about addressing the health crisis in the US.  It matters to me.  And I hope that even just by seeing me read the book or seeing a blog post about it, it’ll help to start engaging others into changing their lifestyles.

This reading naturally led me into reading about animal rights, which is something I am incredibly passionate about today.  I love nonfiction science books about the inner life of animals, the social networks of dolphins and elephants, and the cruelty of factory farms.  I wish I could get one of these books in a week, but for right now I’ll settle for as many as possible, haha.

More recently I’ve become interested in the history of racism in the US and how that history impacts social interactions today.  This is what spurred me on to ask Amy to do The Real Help Reading Project with me, and I hope that our presence online discussing these books will help to broaden and change some minds.

Maybe it’s a bit idealistic to think one can evoke social justice and change purely through what you read, but it’s something I can’t help but believe in.  I guess Brandeis taught me well.

What about you?

Do you read nonfiction to help support a cause(s)?

Leave links to your posts in the comments!  (I have issues making link collectors work for me).  Thanks!

Book Review: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

June 30, 2011 3 comments

Black and white smoke-stack.Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

My high school English teacher strongly recommended to me that I read this book, claiming that I would love it, and I only just now got around to it.  I’m glad that her recommendation stuck in my head, though, because this book  is flat-out amazing.  It may be the best piece of social justice writing I have ever come across.

Of course that wouldn’t be the case if Sinclair’s abilities to craft a piece of fiction with enthralling characters were not up to par.  Fortunately, they are.  Jurgis and his family are well-rounded.  Scenes are set vividly, and time passes at just the right rate.  I would be amiss not to mention that Sinclair suffers from some of the racism rampant during his time-period.  African-Americans are presented in a very racist light, as are most Irish-Americans.  It surprises me that someone so passionate about social justice could simultaneously be racist, but I suppose we are all have our faults.  Fortunately the racism makes up a very small portion of the book that is relatively easy to skim over if that sort of thing in historical classics bothers you.

The primary issues Sinclair addresses in the book are: meat eating, the plight of the working class, greed, and socialism.

Although when it was first published The Jungle created an outcry for better regulation of meat production, in fact the book is strongly against the eating of animals at all.

And then again, it has been proven that meat is unnecessary as a food; and meat is obviously more difficult to produce than vegetable food, less pleasant to prepare and handle, and more likely to be unclean. (Locations 5353-5355)

This strongly vegetarian viewpoint is strengthened by a lengthy scene early in the book in which Jurgis and his family take a tour of a packing plant for the first time and witness the slaughter.  The family, and indeed everyone on the tour, are distraught and emotional witnessing the taking of so many lives and hearing the pigs squeal in pain and fear.  It is here that Sinclair makes a point about what impact slaughterhouses have on the humanity of the workers, for while the visitors are distraught at the scene, it is soon seen that for the workers

Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.(Locations 536-540)

Thus it can be seen that not only is meat eating cruel, inefficient, and unhealthy, but it also dehumanizes those who must participate in the process.

Of course a much more prevalent theme in the book is the plight of the working class of which Jurgis and his family are a part.  This can be a difficult book to read at times for it shows how solidly these people are trounced upon by society and greed, no matter how hard they try.  First Sinclair establishes how the constant worry over money and survival affects the working class:

Such were the cruel terms upon which their life was possible, that they might never have nor expect a single instant’s respite from worry, a single instant in which they were not haunted by the thought of money. (Locations 1585-1586)

Then Sinclair demonstrates how this rough and tumble, cog in the machine existence slowly wears away the humanity of those fated to suffer from it:

She was part of the machine she tended, and every faculty that was not needed for the machine was doomed to be crushed out of existence. (Page 79)

Society, with all its powers, had declared itself his foe. And every hour his soul grew blacker, every hour he dreamed new dreams of vengeance, of defiance, of raging, frenzied hate. (Page 94)

Sinclair then shows how these dehumanized people are essentially in a prison and are slaves to the greed of others:

There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside. (Page 164)

I find that all the fair and noble impulses of humanity, the dreams of poets and the agonies of martyrs, are shackled and bound in the service of organized and predatory Greed! (Page 176)

Now that Sinclair has shown through one family how the current system enslaves and dehumanizes the workers, he has a solid stage to argue against the collection of wealth in the hands of the few, in other words, to argue for socialism.

The power of concentrated wealth could never be controlled, but could only be destroyed. (Page 186)

In America every one had laughed at the mere idea of Socialism then—in America all men were free. As if political liberty made wage slavery any the more tolerable! (Page 183)

By putting faces via the characters of Jurgis and family to the plight of the workers suffering at the hands of greed and the imbalance of wealth, Sinclair sets the stage for the most eloquent argument in favor of socialism I have ever read.

This book profoundly demonstrates how fiction can work for a cause and humanize, familiarize, and bring to home the faces and reality behind the issues of the day.  I highly recommend this powerful work to all.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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