Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way


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100 Books While 40: OUT OF AFRICA

Title: OUT OF AFRICA
Author: Isak Dinesen
Published: 1937

When I try to imagine interacting with a foreigner who acts and speaks in a way that lays bare their assumed ownership of my homeland and my unending indentured servitude to them I simply cannot. This is so far from my lived reality that I simply cannot put myself in that space. And that is my privilege.

This book is soaked in colonialism and entitlement. The entire continent of Africa, including all of its people is just a thing for the consumption of wealthy, affected Europeans looking to tell their peers of their exotic adventures. All the genuinely affectionate and beautiful prose dedicated to the beauty of the country and its people is soured because I cannot forget for even a moment how the continent’s present has been shaped by its past exploitation.

I’m sure my awareness was driven by my recent listening to Seeing White, a series on the Scene on Radio podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast enough, but be prepared to feel unsettled. At it’s core, that podcast made me confront what the real legacy of whiteness is. And in short it’s exploitation, theft, and power. And the only reason we can pretend that’s not the case is because we wrote history and cast ourselves in the hero role.

I am struck now by how desperate we, and by we I mean white people, are to hold on to that hero role. White men are clinging to their armories even in the face of their children dying because it furthers their hero fantasies. What an incredible thing. We love our stories more than our kids.

I was so relieved when I reached the last page of this book. You don’t need to read this book. The same delusions in the book are still acting on us today.

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100 Books While 40: GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL

Book: Guns, Germs, and Steel
Author: Jared Diamond
Published: 1997

White people came to dominate the globe not due to inherent superior intellect but due to geographical advantages. Also, people are horrible. That’s my summary of this book.

This book is fascinating, but also very difficult to get through. History’s story arc is mostly thus, bully takes advantage of the powerless to pointlessly expand his power and yet still dies anyway. The end. And the retelling of this same story arc is exhausting. The science parts of the book are fascinating, but cannot over come the emotional drain.

The only way I was able to make it through this book was by listening to the audio book. Which essentially means I could zone out for some parts when I couldn’t listen to was felt like the 115th story about people killing off species of animals or other humans just because.

This dark reality was particularly hard to take given politics today. That story… Bully kills and consumes with impunity until he dies. The end. Here we are again.


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100 Books While 40: ALICE MUNRO: SELECTED STORIES

Book: Alice Munro: Selected Stories
Author: Alice Munro
Published: 1996

I lost control of the URL for my blog. It took several months for me to reclaim it. That would be a good reason to have several months without a post. But it has been more than that. I haven’t been to shows or reading, and since those were typically my topics I haven’t written.

I’ve been missing the blogging, not so much because I’ve had much to say, but because it motivated me to read. I’m not sure why I can articulate why I withhold reading from myself. So. Here’s a halting start to the blogging so as to start the reading.

I finished Alice Munro’s short stories months ago, and now I am only left with a vague feeling of wistfulness for her stories with their domesticated desperation. Regardless of the objective level of drama in our lives subjectively we still have the highest highs and lowest lows. I put down her stories with the gentle ache that we each face our own unique circumstances to the same universal heartbreak and joy.

In this way we are all the same.

Now then. I am swirling in a nest non-fiction books that are very long and very detailed. I think it will be weeks before I manage to finish one of them. I am looking at you ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and TEAM OF RIVALS. *sigh* I will be back. I just don’t know when.


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100 Books While 40: THE GIVER

Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Published: 1996

The summary for this book is ignorance is bliss. And if you find ambiguous endings insufferable don’t read it. Most of the population in this diytopian future community is blind to history and blind to differences. They cannot see color, and they are not allowed to make choices. 

The benefit of not experiencing differences or making choices is the inability to make a bad decision. There is no bad choice when there is no choices to be made. The culture has fully normalized killing unsuitable babies and old people. But really the same point could be made with brown people or those with minority religious views. 

There is one keeper of history and knowledge of difference and he selects a young boy to take over for him. The boy questions the way things have always been leading the keeper to reconsider his own part in the transfer of knowledge. 

Life is in the choosing. Making the choice is more important than if the choice was right or wrong. Knowledge can be hard to live with. When injustice is shown to me I feel compelled to act against it. The exhausting aspect of that is that there is so much of it in this world.


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100 Books While 40: THE SUN ALSO RISES

Title: The Sun Also Rises
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Published: 1926

It is ok to have feelings if you are always drunk while fishing or watching bull fighting. I guess it is manly to feel but only when you do incredibly manly things like watching bulls gore a horse to death. Where I a man, I would not find this reassuring.

Once you have seen the carnage that was WWI, I imagine it difficult to get excited doing your desk job. What is the point after you have seen how indiscriminately lives are destroyed? It would be difficult to come to any other conclusion than this one: the only thing that matters is that you enjoy your moments. Apart from that, we are promised nothing.

When I think about life through this lens, I know exactly why Hemingway lived as he did. He took joy from the things that he could. He wrote because he enjoyed the struggle. He drank, watched bullfights, and traveled because these things brought him pleasure. The end.

Maybe it’s hubris that makes many of us think there is anything else. That we agonize about meaning, or strive to build businesses or homes, are all folly unless we take joy from the effort itself. Investing in the future at the expense of the now, assumes something. It assumes that life is fair.

These moments of reorientation happen for me periodically. There is a paradigm shift, and then I struggle to make sense of the implications of it. If I had to summarize 2016 it would be thus. What I perceived as indulgent, incorrect actions resulted in excellent outcomes. What I perceived as the hard, correct actions resulted in horrible outcomes. Maybe I need to take up bullfighting and smoke more cigars.


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100 Books while 40:THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Published: 2010

Who is entitled to our genetic material? If my cells enable a drug company to create a profit generating drug should I get some of the proceeds? As the laws are today, I couldn’t. Sharing the profits with me would cause drug companies to stop making drugs, or so they say. That last sentence is so absurd I laughed a little while typing it. 

Henrietta Lacks signed off on giving her cancerous cervical cells to research. Years later her cells have been reproduced enough to encircle the world. They were used in developing several cancer treatments. In essence these cells were the precursor to billions of dollars of medical services and treatments. Meanwhile Henrietta’s children and grandchildren cannot afford healthcare.

Something is deeply wrong with this. Although I am not of the opinion that The Lacks family should be millionaires off their mom’s genetic material, it does feel unjust that her children cannot afford the treatments that their mother enabled. At the core of this book is the conflict inherent in capitalism as our caretaker.

We are engaging with a set of economic causes and effects, all the while pretending there is some morality to it. There’s nothing moral in supply and demand, it is better a display of amoral power. Those that have can extort those that do not to greatest degree possible. And when they do so we consider that “good” business. 

If we question the outcomes of this blind system, we are always scolded with the dramic choice between no healthcare and a more equitable system or healthcare for the wealthy. This either/or proposition has been demonstrated as false by Britain’s NHS and Canada’s healthcare. But we still believe that to control morally bankrupt capitalist forces in our healthcare is to handover our decisions to a soulless government minion. But a profit-seeking insurance agent is just peachy.

Lifting this rock a bit more reveals our unspoken, toxic adoration of wealth as being synonymous with right and good, and poverty being only a moral failing rather than a systemic feature of capitalism. Most of the rich people I know have overcome less barriers than the poor people I know. If what we really value is hard work, my time waiting tables should have been better than my time spent in my cushioned office chair directing project meetings. But that isn’t what my pay says. 

Meanwhile I will enjoy my yearly checkup in a few weeks. I will get my teeth cleaned with no out of pocket expenses. And I will think about a those years waiting tables with no healthcare. And I will consider that I must have become more morally good since then.


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100 Books While 40: OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Title: Of Human Bondage
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Published: 1915

Nothing can rival the passing of years to impart understanding and wisdom to the thoughtful. The stories of all the men Philip wanted to be versus the man he actually became is only meaningful to one who has seen many of their lives spin out of our imaginations and later die on the indifferent shores of reality.

Age gives these truths. Unlike The Age of  Innocence this shows the way in which our thwarted dreams can give space for the perfect dream unseen but desired. After many false starts Philip finds his love and contentment in simple pleasures afforded by a modest life. 

It is in the smile of a loved one or their small victory in sharing who they are. These are the gifts easily missed in the forest of our own distracting sensations and habit of living in the future or the past. They are waiting to be seen just beyond the TV and our phone screens. They are there just to the side of the bitter disappointment over a lost job or a missed opportunity.