Graphic novels on systematic oppression

I was in a mood the last time I was at the library and these are the three other graphic novels I got along with Freedom Hospital, and all of them are about dealing with systematic oppression. Not necessarily successfully, but trying to. They are none of them cheery.

RunforitRun For It: Stories of slaves who fought for their freedom
by Marcelo D’Salete
2017

There’s four chapters, telling four somewhat interlinked stories of black resistance to slavery in Brazil. And it’s just heart-breaking. Individuals could and did fight for their freedom, but unlike a game of tag, there was no home base, no safety or home free. There was just constant risk of staying, even greater risk of trying to leave, and no alternatives.

And trying to organize for a rebellion against the structure itself was just more courting death.

It also really shows how slavery-based societies actively promote viciousness and suppress empathy, among everyone involved, slave owner and slave alike. And possibly the greatest rebellion that the slaves managed to (sometimes) win, was to maintain a sense of worth to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

girlcalledechoA Girl Called Echo, Vol. 1: Pemmican Wars
by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk
2017

This a beautifully done YA comic about Echo, who has been placed in a new school and a new foster care house. In school, she’s learning the history of the Métis, the local indigenous tribe, from which she is descended but not raised with. She’s in a position where she doesn’t fit in with the people around her or even with the people who should have been her people, but about whom she doesn’t know anything.

But in an odd experience that comes with no explanation (in this volume, at least) she is transported back in time, for short periods, to the era that her modern history class is talking about. And that’s where she makes what looks like her first a friend, Marie, a young Métis girl. But Marie is experiencing the time that Echo is learning about in school: the series of conflicts between Métis and colonists that largely destroyed the Métis way of life.

veraxVERAX: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance
by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil
2017

Pratap Chatterjee is a journalist and the graphic novel follows his years-long investigation into governmental mass surveillance and drone warfare. So the slow start and surprisingly long time it takes to get anywhere might be a realistic portrayal of the frustration of the investigation but it makes for a book that spends the first half alternating between victims speaking about their loved ones being killed in drone attacks and Chatterjee speaking about his editor not properly appreciating his nose for a story. Chatterjee does not look good in the comparison.

That said, about two thirds of the way through, it starts to pick up with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. At that point the story shifts from following an investigation to explaining the implications of the information found, and that was much more interesting.

VERAX brought up two things that I hadn’t given much thought to before:

First:

That unmanned drones are not actually unmanned: they have a crew of 180 people stationed around the world, keeping them in the air, flying them, analyzing the data, examining the video feed, and making the calls to fire. It means that Air Force enlisted kids right out of high school and sat them down in front of screens with crappy surveillance video (this is not the high def videos shown in the movies) and has them watch the grainy videos of people dismembered and dying from the missiles they helped launch. Rates of PTSD among drone pilots who never leave their offices is amazingly high.

My dad used to say, “be careful what you put into your head, because you can’t always get it out again.” Some knowledge is important to have, and certainly worth the pain of being a third party witness. But sometimes it is just too much: I can’t imagine spending years watching those videos live.

Second:

While mass surveillance is an invasion of privacy and terrifying in how pervasive it is, it is almost equally terrifying how rife with errors it is. It’s bad data and the government is making life-or-death decisions based on this data. That’s why there are so many civilian casualties by a method that is supposed to be created specifically to avoid them. Because how often have you called a wrong number or gotten a call from someone trying to reach someone else? Maybe it’s an old phone number of maybe a 5 got misread as a 6, or a 1 as a 7.

It’s full of bad data, such that a good third of the drone strikes were made on the wrong targets. And the institutions making use of the data tend heavily towards confirmation bias. Ie, if they’re looking for a weapon and they see someone in a person’s hands, that’s evidence that they have a weapon. As opposed to looking at someone carrying something and considering how many other things they could be carrying: a glass of water, a baby, a bag of skittles. No matter how smart you are, no matter how dedicated, you cannot make good decisions based on bad data.

But overall, as a book, it was a slow start that finished with a lot of ideas and was very thought provoking.

I recommend all three books, but they are draining as they show how hard and yet necessary it is to maintain hope.

What She Ate

Current events at the moment seem specifically designed to fill me with rage, so at this point I am generally looking for escape in the books I read. I thought that What She Ate by Laura Shapiro–described as a look inside the lives of six famous women by examining the food they ate–would be a fun discussion of snacks and baking. In fact, what Shapiro actually did was highlight how the patriarchy has devalued the experience of women throughout history. So reading this did not help with my rage! But it was a completely absorbing, fascinating book.

Shapiro writes a chapter each on six famous women, using their own writings and primary historical sources to tell both their individual story and highlight some element of the time they lived in:

  • Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of poet William, kept house for her brother in the Lake District until he married and struggled to find her place in 17th century English society as an unmarried woman.
  • Rosa Lewis, a famous caterer in Edwardian England used food to, if not defeat the English class system, then at least to make herself a good life within it.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt apparently pretty actively supported terrible food in the White House for a variety of reasons, but at least part of it being because she had (and wanted everyone to know she had) bigger things to worry about.
  • Eva Braun’s insane relationship to food and illustrated a tiny corner of the Nazis’ insanity and hypocrisy.
  • Barbara Pym was a brilliant author whose stories of domestic life offered a window into the world of middle-class post-war England.
  • Helen Gurley Brown, the famously skinny editor of Cosmopolitan who was trying to navigate the ever-changing role of women in the workplace and mostly just seems to have ended up torturing and denying herself at every turn.

Each woman’s story was interesting, but Shapiro also uses the book to make a larger point about how what is considered “important history” has long been determined by men. Food is enormously important to everyone–we all think about food all day!–but because food was traditionally women’s business, history rarely takes it into account. Literature, as well. Shapiro describes how the journal that Dorothy Wordsworth kept in the Lake District has long been considered only in terms of the insight it could offer into her brother’s poetry, but is actually a significant historical and literary document in and of itself. Apparently the fact the she talks about what she plans to make for dinner somehow negates it’s worth. This book is a huge step towards insisting that food be seen as an important element of history itself, as well as a tool for examining larger cultural forces.

I should also say that although each of these stories was engaging to read, most of them were not particularly happy. Perhaps that is just the fate of being a smart woman in most any period in recent history, but quite a number of these stories ended sadly. The only two women that I might consider swapping places with would have been Rosa Lewis and Barbara Pym–maybe because they were women least interested in fitting themselves into traditional roles and most willing to follow their own paths, regardless what anyone thought.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  Sneakily-radical history via food

You might also like:  Each of the stories here made me want to track down more info on the person profiled (except for Helen Gurley Brown, she seems awful) and Barbara Pym is a goddamn genius so I obviously recommend that everyone go read her work. But if you’d just like to read something about fun that revolves around food, the novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is lovely. And while I know it isn’t universally beloved, I really adore Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and I think she does a good job of discussing how Julia Child thought about food and how it impacted her life.

 

Dear Mrs. Bird

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I am an absolute sucker for books about the Blitz. Something about the combination of London, historical fiction, the drama of WWII–I will read just about anything the features the word “Blitz” in the blurb. And I’m clearly not the only person who feels this way, since these books continue to get published. The new Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce fits nicely into my favorite sub-category of this genre–women in the Blitz–while adding some layers I haven’t often seen.

Emmie is a young woman living in London in the early days of WWII. She works part-time as a fire dispatcher, but dreams of being a reporter and is thrilled to get a job at a magazine, sure she is on her way to be an intrepid war correspondent. However, it turns out that she is mostly doing typing at an old-fashioned ladies’ magazine whose editor won’t answer any sort of reader questions that deal with any “Unpleasantness.” Of course, there’s a war on and life is complicated, so Emmie ends up reading lots of letters from readers with serious problems, and can’t bear to think that they won’t get any response. She she starts responding and well, hijinks ensue.

Now, the basic plot here requires that Emmie spends a lot of time worried about being caught and worrying about what will happen when she does, and that is one of my least favorite things to read–I find that completely agonizing and by the end of the book was almost skimming scenes in her office for fear of what was going to happen. What saved the book for me were Emmie’s experiences outside work, where she and her best friend attempt to live their 20-something lives in the middle of a war. More than most Blitz books I’ve read, Dear Mrs. Bird gets across the feeling that yes, terrible things were happening, but that for those people living in the middle of the bombing, it became normalized. Emmie and her friends have to view the nightly bombings and tragedies as just another irritation to deal with, like bad traffic, in order to live their lives. And when you’re twenty-two, something like getting dumped is likely to feel like a much bigger deal than the war. And yet, at the same time, the book takes on the issue of how the internal and external pressure to keep the famous British “stiff upper lip” was hard on people, and how sometimes even the most patriotic Londoner needed to acknowledge the toll the constant bombing took on them.

There’s also just a bit of romance, although I couldn’t help but feel that Emmie might have landed in the wrong place there–I’m holding out hope that there might be a sequel featuring my favorite character, Emmie’s long-suffering boss at the magazine. He’s in his forties and spends most of the book rolling his eyes at Emmie’s adventures and the rest of the world, and I found him completely charming. And I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that this is the role I would most likely be playing in this story.

Kinsey’s Three-ish Word Review:  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society meets Bridget Jones.

You might also like:  Well, obviously, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the Bridget Jones books. But also a book I rave about a lot called The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets or another adorable one called Miss Buncle’s Book. And if you’re looking for a little period escapism with a lot of charming young British ladies falling in love, Mary Stewart basically perfected post-war romantic suspense and I read through all her work as a teenager–my favorites of hers were always Touch Not the Cat and Nine Coaches Waiting.

And if, like me, you’d just like to read some more books about the Blitz, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear are epics that also involve time travel. I also love Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, and The Distant Hours by Kate Morton. And in other media, check out “The Stolen Child” and “The Doctor Dances” episodes of Doctor Who and the movie Hope and Glory.

The Essex Serpent

61U76uN5PHLI was in London earlier this summer and the book of the moment, the book piled up in store displays and advertised in posters around town, was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I was worried that this would be another of those Kinsey Tells You About an Already Wildly Popular thing entries, but I haven’t heard much about The Essex Serpent here in the U.S., which is a shame, because it’s really quite a good book.

I suppose you could call this a neo-Victorian novel–it’s set in England in late 1800s, and focuses on a woman named Cora. Her husband has just died–not a terribly sad occasion for her–and being a widow has allowed her the freedom to start walking the marshes and looking fossils and getting muddy and generally ignoring nice society. In the course of all this she meets the vicar of a small town on the English coast and they strike up a friendship, which is at least partly based on Cora’s interest in rumors of a sea monster (the Essex Serpent) that has been plaguing the town. What will this relationship bring? Will they ever find the serpent?

This description makes it sound like plot-driven, exciting tale! But it’s not, really–it’s not a romance, and it’s not a supernatural mystery/adventure. The basic plot description doesn’t account for how the story’s point of view moves from character to character, not only Cora and the vicar, but also their children, the vicar’s wife, and a doctor friend of Cora’s, among others. The book is really a character study, illuminating the inner lives of a variety of people that, for various reasons (gender, class, intelligence), are marginalized or limited within society.  Plus, the tiny villages and marshes of English seaside basically serve as one of the characters, giving the whole book a sort of damp, salty feeling to it. All this makes it seem odd, honestly that this is such a book of the moment in England–it’s about as far from The Girl on the Train as you could get, but it’s a lovely book and I’m glad it’s gotten so much attention. The cover is also just gorgeous.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Atmospheric Victorian tale

You might also like: The Historian or The Thirteenth Tale; or Kate Morton’s books, including The House at Riverton; or Sarah Waters’s books, especially Fingersmith.

Books for the New America

So, 2016, huh? It’s been quite a year. I feel like I’ve been just barely hanging on since the election. But while I needed some recovery time to mourn and come to terms with what had happened, it’s time to look up and move forward. (Although holidays cards have been a challenge, since I couldn’t find any that said “Merry Christmas, but I’m still really mad.” I should have waited to make my card purchase, since the genius Swistle just got on zazzle.com and made a bunch of cards with pretty lights and trees on the front that say things like, “Wishing you whatever scraps of peace and joy you can find this holiday season.”) Since this site is all about dealing with everything thought books, I thought I would offer two different kinds of book options for anyone else out there who might be desperately looking for their scraps of peace and joy.

Comfort Books

I spent a lot of the last month reading things that allowed me to slide into a calmer, more peaceful world. The best of them included:

  • L.M. Montgomery stand-alone books. As much as I love Anne of Green Gables, once I start rereading that I have to go through the whole series, which is a big time commitment. Plus, Rilla of Ingleside, the last book in the series, has too much heart-breaking World War I plot for me to handle right now. But some of Montgomery’s one-off books are completely charming. My favorites are Jane of Lantern Hill, about a little girl who gets to set up house with her father on Prince Edward Island, and the much more grown-up romance The Blue Castle.
  • Dorothy Sayers mystery novels. How did I miss Dorothy Sayers all my life? Somehow how I did, which is actually great, because now I have a whole series of arch British 20th century mysteries to catch up on. Whose Body? is the first in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but Gaudy Night has been my favorite so far.
  • Books about makeup. The actual thing that has been soothing me to sleep each night? Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes, her latest detailed hardback book about classic makeup/hair care/beauty items. Just page after page of gorgeous photos of a lipstick or a shampoo bottle, next to a little essay about each item. Even opening the book lowers my blood pressure.

I have also heard from friends that vampire books and Connie Willis comedies have been working for them, so this is clearly a category that expands to fit the needs of the individual.

Discomfort Books

But makeup and historical mysteries will only get us so far, and we also need to be prepared for the fight ahead. Since I assume that everyone has already been taking notes from The Handmaid’s Tale, here are a few other books to keep you sharp.

  • The Small Change series by Jo Walton. These are also British mystery novels, but they are worlds away from Dorothy Sayers. In this trilogy, which starts with Farthing, English elites overthrew Churchill and ceded Europe to Hitler, and fascism and intolerance are creeping over the island. While each book features a mystery and a principled Scotland Yard investigator, the power of the books in the chilling way they show what happens to regular people trying to live regular lives as their country slowly crushes them.
  • Anything by Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Sower is a completely amazing book that terrified me to the point where I can never read it again. As I recall, it was about a teenage girl living with her family in a California where law and order and government and society and general had broken down. Also, I think she was starting a new religion? But any Octavia Butler is going to provide a swift reminder about the oppression some Americans have experienced from the moment this country began and kind of how terrible humans can be, in general.
  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. The author of this, I’m going to call it a literary oral history, won the Nobel prize in literature in 2015. This book is an amazing, enormous telling of the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today’s Russia through a zillion individual stories. What came through most clearly to me was how many of the people she spoke with felt like not only their country, but the people that lived within it, became unrecognizable in the blink of an eye.

 

World War Z

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By Max Brooks
2007

So I “read” this as an audio book that was marked as unabridged, but does appear to have lacked a few sections from the original book written in 2006. I now need to go back and read that whole book, because this was AMAZING and there are still parts I haven’t read!

Just, wow! So, so good!

The audio book was particularly good for an audio book because it was read by a full cast of voice actors, not just a single reader, and it really highlighted the way that this book was presented as an oral history.

For the rare person who doesn’t recognize it, it’s a fictional book inspired by the nonfiction book The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. In World War Z, though, the war in question is the zombie war, but for all the fantasy element, it’s addressed in a serious manner. I love the world building that went into figuring out how a zombie war could start, how different people would react, and how it would eventually end. I also loved the characters, who were all faced with this impossible conflict and did the best that they could.

I may very well be the last person to have gotten around to reading this book, so it hardly needs me to recommend it, but if you happen to have been living under a rock for the last decade, you really should read this!

The only thing that could have made it better is if it were longer, and apparently that wish got granted since there’s more for me to read once I get a text copy to read. (I really want to know more about the blind Japanese mountain man! But I’ll also take anything else.)

As a side note: ignore the movie. They took a really unique book essentially consisting of dozens of epic interlinking short stories and tried to shoehorn it into a traditional movie plot.

How To Cook a Wolf

I can’t remember why I requested How to Cook a Wolf from the library. It must have been recommended online somewhere and I’m sure that the kick-ass title caught my eye, but by the time it came around on my library holds list all I could remember is that it was about cooking during World War II. And I guess you could describe it that way, but that summary really does a disservice to an entertaining, funny, and thoughtful book. No interest in cooking or history is required here–the writing is enough.

MFK Fisher was one of America’s premier food writers (and was also, based on the portrait on the front of the edition I read, a stone fox) was published in 1942, right as food rationing was kicking in, in order to offer readers advice about how to make the best of their meals during the war years. However, she never mentions the war directly, talking instead about how cooks can work to keep away the wolf of poverty, always sniffing at the door. As a result, the book has a timeless feel–she could be talking about about any hard times that stretch to the kitchen, and a lot of her suggestions fit remarkably well into out post-recession world. Especially since the book is not so much about the specific how-to-cook-things instructions, but is more about a philosophy or a way of approaching food that is frugal and reasonable, but also hopeful. So her chapters are called things like How to Rise Up Like New Bread, How to Be Cheerful Though Starving, and How to Comfort Sorrow.

There are recipes involved here and you could definitely cook from this book, although I suspect that the dishes Fisher describes are made for the palates of a previous generation (she wants you to add tomato juice to A LOT of things that I don’t think should have tomato juice anywhere near them). But even when she is talking about specific dishes, her writing reminds you that food is not just about the ingredients, but that it speaks to how we feel about ourselves and about life. For example, before offering her minestrone recipe, she says, “Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone.” And some of the recipes sounded pretty good–I was tempted by something she recalled from her childhood as War Cake, and at least one blogger out there made this with great success.

The other awesome thing about the edition of the book I read is that it was a re-release from the 1950s, and Fisher had gone back through and added notes throughout the book either agreeing with her original statements or offering an updated perspective. Here’s an example from the How Not To Boil an Egg chapter:

“Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.

Until then you would think its secrets are its own, hidden behind the impassive beautiful curvings of its shell, white or brown or speckled. It emerges full-formed, almost painlessly {The egg may not be bothered, but nine years and two daughters after writing this I wonder somewhat more about the hen. I wrote, perhaps, too glibly.} from the hen.”

I think I would have liked having cocktails with her. Anyway, it’s a quick read and it’s quite funny, while also reminding the reader how different things were not all that long ago, and that there are likely still tough times to weather ahead. Also, if you would like the read a sexist but otherwise entertaining original 1942 review of How to Cook a Wolf from the New York Times, you can find that here.


Kinsey’s Three Word Review:
Wonderful historical snapshot.

You might also like:
For more great food writing, you can check out Julia Child (obviously and forever) or Ruth Reichl. But if you’d like to read some fiction of the era with a similar voice, try the Mitfords or Barbara Pym.