Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June, 2018

The Map of Salt and Stars

Posted by nliakos on June 23, 2018

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone 2018)

This novel by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is actually two novels in one. The first one, set in Syria, Jordan, and North Africa in 2011, is the first-person account of the escape of one Syrian family from the conflict in their homeland. This family consists of the mother, a cartographer, and her three daughters, Huda, Zahra, and twelve-year-old narrator Nour. The family had been living in New York, where Nour was born, but decided to move back to Syria after the death of the husband and father to cancer. They have barely settled in to their home in Homs, and Nour’s Arabic is still quite rudimentary, when the house is destroyed by a shell, and they find themselves homeless. Joined by the father’s best friend, Abu Saeed, they begin to make their way westward, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally Morocco, seeking safety. They confront dangers of many kinds, lose one person when the ferry they are on sinks, are separated when the mother has to remain behind to take Huda to a hospital, and are finally reunited in Ceuta, the Spanish city across from Gibraltar, where the novel concludes.

We experience this harrowing journey through the eyes of Nour, who happens to be a synesthete; her descriptions are accordingly vivid, such as “a dog barks silver purple”, “the bare walls will be splashed with color from everybody’s singing”, and “I smell the brown-red brakes before we see the bus terminal”. (I wonder: Is Joukhadar also a synesthete?) She is still grieving for her father, as they all are, in their different ways. She idolizes her eldest sister Huda, but has to learn to love middle sister Zahra, who can be hard to like but who undergoes her own transformation as the novel unfolds. This is Nour’s coming-of-age; it could not happen in a more challenging setting.

The other novel within the novel is the story of another journey, undertaken nine centuries earlier in the same part of the world, that of Rawiya of Ceuta, who disguises herself as a boy so that she can apprentice herself to the famed (actual historic) mapmaker, al-Idrisi, as he travels throughout the then-known world to make the first accurate map of it for the Sicilian king, Roger II. Rawiya (aka Rami) is a kind of super-hero(ine), smart, courageous, highly skilled and seemingly indefatigable. Rawiya and al-Idrisi, together with another apprentice, Bakr, and the poet/singer Khaldun, make their way over the same lands as Nour and her family do, although some of the names are different (Aila for Aqaba, Barneek for Benghazi). This is a story that Nour’s parents have told her over and over again, a story that she tells herself, trying to take on the attributes of Rawiya, who never seems to be afraid, never panics, never loses sight of her goal, whether she is fighting people or mythical monsters (giant serpents, the roc). It is Rawiya’s story that will help Nour to reach the place where she and Zahra are reunited with their mother and Huda.

Both stories were engrossing, both protagonists admirable and likable, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart * How We Come Together

Posted by nliakos on June 10, 2018

by Van Jones ( Ballantine 2017)

I don’t watch CNN much, and I have never seen Van Jones’ show, The Messy Truth. In fact, I had no idea who he was (progressive activist, CNN political contributor, author, attorney, founder/supporter of numerous progressive organizations). However, reading this book has made me curious to know more (if you know when The Messy Truth airs on CNN, please let me know!).  In it, Jones speaks as a progressive, but he speaks to both liberals and conservatives. He believes that both share responsibility for the mess we are in today, and both have the power and the responsibility to fix it. In fact, he says, we need each other, because neither side has the whole answer. He writes, “In the end, the promise of America is liberty and justice for all. My fellow liberals are so focused on justice we too easily forget about liberty. Conservatives can be so committed to liberty that you become blind to cases where injustice curtails freedom. We need each other. We cannot improve this country alone.” He couches the progressive/conservative split as a difference in which values are prioritized. It’s a simple thing, but I had never really thought about it in that way before. I think perhaps he is right. Government can be too big and too intrusive. Regulations can be too onerous than necessary. Not every conservative goal ends in injustice. We do need a balance between the sides; the discussion between them slows down the process and gives everybody a chance to consider all the options and possible consequences of change, and forces everyone to think about and clarify their ideas and their consequences.

Chapters Two and Three are “open letters” to liberals and conservatives, in which Jones speaks first directly to his fellow progressives and then to those on the conservative side. As a lifelong liberal, I read the “Open Letter to Liberals” with interest and introspection, and found Jones’ conclusions to ring true. (Example: Democrats take the African American vote for granted, not bothering to make good on their promises to this group: “The party should dramatically increase its paltry investments in the one community that has backed it unconditionally” [92% of the African American vote generally goes to Democrats.]).

Jones has great compassion for the poor and working-class white voters who have been abandoned by the party that should prioritize their interests–the Democrats. He understands that not all of these voters are racist bigots. He understands how globalization, trade deals, wars, and other decisions made in the interests of the big parties and big business have stolen the ability of many to support their families as they were accustomed to doing by working in factories and mines, for example. But he doesn’t excuse them for supporting Trump despite his offensive statements. He writes, “I understand where [they] are coming from. I hear their pain, and I want to give voice to that. . . . [but] as much as I want liberals to understand where blue-collar families . . . are coming from, I want Trump voters . . . to broaden their political agenda to include real compassion for the pain experienced by Americans who are black and brown. I want them to understand that the impact of their choice has created a living hell for American Muslims living in fear, for Latino workers facing deportation, . . . for Native Americans fighting the imposition of leak-prone pipelines, for those Americans . . . who will face longer prison sentences under the reignited drug war.” He concludes, “Trump’s stoking of racial animosity was one factor, but not the only factor, in his victory. Liberals need to keep that in mind–lest we paint too many people with the wrong brush and push persuadable people deeper into Trump’s arms.”

In Chapter Five, “Prince, Newt, and the Way Forward’, Jones describes some of his personal relationships with people on both sides of the great divide, like his college journalism teacher and mentor, E. Jerald Ogg (a white, conservative Republican), Newt Gingrich (an unlikely friend for a liberal Democrat, but nevertheless), and Prince, the rock star. The part about Prince was especially interesting to me. I was never a fan of his music (probably because I never heard much of it or recognized it as his, and I was surprised at the outpouring of emotion when he died. Jones, who became great friends with Prince, describes how he would donate large amounts of money to many individuals, projects, and causes, but generally anonymously, because he wanted to avoid attention for his generosity; and how Prince stood by him and advised him during a particularly dark time in his life. Jones and Prince together created a program to encourage young African Americans to learn computer coding so that they would have the skills to work in the new 21st century jobs. He writes, “Prince touched people’s lives in countless ways. . . . His music will be his legacy, always and forever, but I will always remember him for his generous commitment to giving back. He notes how people of all races, religions, and ethnicities were among his fans: “Somehow everyone was in on the secret of the purple magic he created, and everyone belonged.” Jones’ words turned Prince from a mere celebrity  into a human being that I think anyone would have admired.

The final chapter is devoted to four ideas to help bring Americans together again:

(1) fixing the justice system that incarcerates more people than any other country, and sometimes spits them out after their sentences are served, deprived of their fundamental rights or any way to make an honest living. Specifically, he recommends keeping disruptive students in school rather than suspending, expelling, or arresting them; eliminating excessive fees and fines; doing away with money bail; decriminalizing addiction and mental illness; not sending people to prison for low level crimes; abolishing mandatory minimum and solitary confinement, increasing access to education and family visits; supporting ex-offenders’ ability to make a living; and restoring their voting rights.

(2) ending the opioid addiction crisis by ending the “detox and die” method; making naloxone  readily available; providing medicine and counseling to incarcerated addicts; requiring insurance companies to cover addiction treatment; training medical professionals to deal with addiction; and treating addiction like the illness it is rather than like criminal behavior.

(3) recognizing that “technology is great for consumers. But it can be bad for workers.” And really training people for work in the tech industry.

(4) Supporting clean technology and cleanup of industrial pollution.

Reading this book renewed my hope that perhaps things can get better again, if we would just respect one another and seek innovative solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

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