I haven’t written since early January because I’ve been struggling with the gloom and anxiety resulting from last fall’s election. I gave myself some space over the inaugural weekend, figuring I’d write the next weekend. But that came after a week of ill-advised executive orders that culminated in one resulting in the deportation of people with permanent residency and others who had waited years and endured much to come here.
As a result, it has seemed somehow inappropriate to write about crafts, baking and gardening in the face of ominous attacks on the Constitution, civil rights, and democracy. As someone trained as a historian, I know the dangers of ignoring incursions into checks and balances. Still, while remaining alert citizens, we need some joy in daily life.
I have been sewing and reading and, yes, have ordered some seeds for the garden. I’m not ready to look forward to the gardening season yet, but I’ve been out there, trimming roses and getting lettuces out of the cold frame.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading, some of it escapist and some of it not. I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I also read Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple. Currently, I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Moonglow.
Hochschild is a sociologist you may know from her book a few year’s ago about parents, called The Second Shift. She was interested in the working class voters who always seem to vote against their self interest by voting conservative. She went to Louisiana and lived there for five years, getting to know people and listening.
It’s a book whose stories are hard to read: a family whose bayou has been poisoned and most of whose members have died of cancer; a man who worked for a company that dumped chemicals into the bayou, who was fired when he needed to go on disability, and who helped the local Tea Party candidate plant signs along the road; people who can’t fish their local waters or eat what they catch. They are hard-working people who want to make it on their own. Hochschild’s book makes three points. We all need to break through the empathy wall when talking to people whose opinions we disagree with or don’t understand. The people she was writing about have been working a long time and standing in line for the American dream. They feel as though someone keeps getting put in ahead of them. The third thing is emotional. They feel judged and misunderstood by liberals and welcomed into community by conservatives. It’s a book well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand the resurgence of political conservatism, and its lessons may apply in more than the US.
I didn’t read Go Set a Watchman when it came out because there was such hullabaloo surrounding it. There were all sorts of reviews speculating whether it was the book Lee wanted to write rather than To Kill a Mockingbird. And then there was the general hysteria about Atticus Finch being a racist rather than the saintly lawyer of Mockingbird.
Watchman is a good book in its own right. It is a story about not being able to go home again. Jean Louise Finch (Scout) has been living in New York City for a number of years, coming home to the south periodically to find the social expectations stifling and that she has very little in common with her contemporaries.
On the particular visit in the book, she runs smack into the wall that many young people do at some point: how in the world did I grow up here, absorbing all the ideals of my life and come to such diametrically opposed ideas to those of the people I love? It’s a shock. It’s a shock for Jean Louise, much less any reader who can’t hold a complex view of Atticus. It also has one of the clearest, briefest explanations of the southern viewpoint on civil rights I’ve read anywhere–which, even though written in the 1950’s still has currency today (now remember the Hochschild book). It’s well-written and it’s a tight story of the sort that leaves you with things to think about.
Today Will be Different, I’m not going to review at length. Semple writes about characters with some trauma in their background, but this one didn’t convince me and I didn’t much like her. It was disappointing because I liked her previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? so much. It may be that someone else has read the new book and related better to it. If so, please write a review! And thanks to those of you who checked in on me in my dry spell. It’s really nice to be part of such a community.