Tag Archives: history

What I’m Reading: Radical Figures, Life Management

asdportraitAbigail Scott Duniway, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thursday night I reached the epilogue of Evicted, so I’m in the home stretch of finishing that book. Honestly, I’m probably not going to read the backmatter of footnotes and such, which take up the last 20% of the thickness of the book, so I’ll likely be moving on to the next selection in my towering to-read stack.

Related to Current Political Shenanigans

Over the last couple of weeks certain historical figures have been on my mind. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, who the current occupant of the Oval Office recently referred to as if he was alive (Douglass died in 1895).

When I was attending Lewis and Clark College I was in a course where we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. One of the details that stuck with me over the years is that Douglass didn’t know the day he was born, something that most of us consider to be basic information about ourselves. Of course it’s worth reading for more reasons besides that, and it’s public domain so it’s pretty easy to find. Highly recommended—after all, POTUS says that Douglass guy is really going places!

Conservatives Sure Love Progressives and Radicals—At Least After They’re Dead (Salon)

Most of my favorite historical figures relate to social history—the revolutionaries, the people who fought for their beliefs despite negative pushback from others. Here in Oregon we have Abigail Scott Duniway, who fought for women’s suffrage in Oregon alongside national figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An announcement recently informed Portland that the local Hilton Hotel would be renamed after Duniway, which I can only think ties in to the above Salon article. A few years ago I created a Facebook page for Duniway, hoping to start a campaign to rename SE Division street for her…but it looks like the profiteers have now discovered her too.

Finding Time to Read

What would Bookish be without reading? I’ve seen a few articles about making time to read over the last few weeks. They all have something interesting to say.

Making Time to Read (Unclutterer)
In the Time You Spend on Social Media Each Year, You Could Read 200 Books (Quartz)
Books You Can Read in the Time It Takes to Watch the Super Bowl (Minnesota Public Radio)

The Importance of Saying No

Finally, this week I took on another short-term commitment that I probably should have said no to. Obviously I ran across this reminder later in the week…

One Critical Time Management Technique: Saying No (Unclutterer)

Although I admit I should have said no, I’m not entirely sorry because I’ve accepted the opportunity to learn the choral part to the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, aka “Ode to Joy.” It seems pretty flipping timely to me to sing Schiller’s “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” again and again. Loudly.

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What I’m Reading: March Wins the National Book Award!

March: Book Three won the National Book Award last Wednesday! Wahoo!

And last weekend, Representative John Lewis got another surprise when he returned to Nashville. There, in the place where he began his activism, he was presented with copies of his earliest arrest records that nobody had been able to locate previously.

In Nashville, Rep. John Lewis Gets Surprise from His Civil Rights Past

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing a lot of pondering about the next few years, puzzling over what actions I should be taking to stand up against hate. Representative Lewis had a thought that spoke to me. From the article:

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just,” he said, “you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

You guys? I think he’s speaking to all of us.

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Marching Toward a National Book Award

It’s a nice day indeed when you get a library notice that your desired book is waiting for you on the hold shelf, and two hours later you learn the same book has been shortlisted for the National Book Award!

Would March: Book Three live up to the hype? I was pretty stirred up by the end of the second book. As I saw it at the time either Book Two would be the height of the story arc, or they could make Book Three even more interesting and exciting. At the time, that didn’t seem possible.

But it was!

If you’re not familiar with the series, the March trilogy is a set of graphic novels based on the first-person experiences of Representative John Lewis (Georgia) during the Civil Rights era. He’s born to sharecropper parents in Alabama, and when he attends seminary school in Nashville he starts working with others on lunch counter sit-ins. He soon meets Martin Luther King, Jr., and cinches his place in the inner circle of the civil rights movement. He ends up in several scary situations, he is beaten and screamed at, but he never gives up his faith in the power non-violence and the civil rights struggle.

I had never read a first-person account of the movement in long form, and I also wasn’t very familiar with John Lewis before reading this series. (He recently made headlines with his sit-in for gun control.) What the series really gave me was a sense of detail about certain events that I hadn’t had before.

John Lewis spoke at the March on Washington, for example. This sequence during Book Two revealed much conversation that happened about Lewis’ speech in the hours before he gave it, with various organizations and representatives wanting him to take out certain phrases. Through the series, Lewis’ association with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) changes, from being a key member to being slightly at odds with the direction the organization was going in. The March on Washington seems to be a pivotal point in this relationship.

Book Three was the longest of the series, and dense with information. As I was reading it just a few weeks before a really important election, the sequence about Fannie Lou Hamer really spoke to me. If you are not familiar, blacks were attempting to register to vote in Alabama and encountering roadblocks galore, from ‘tests’ to jailing and harassment. Sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer testified on live television about her experiences trying to register to vote, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson was so threatened by what she might say that he invented a reason for a press conference so television stations would cut over to him. (Here’s her full testimony, much of which makes it into Book Three.)

To me, the LBJ episode says a lot about the importance of exercising one’s right to vote. People in this country have fought long and hard just to be able to vote! Don’t take the privilege lightly, friends.

Back to the book. Book Three starts honing in on activity in Selma, Alabama, and the serious voter suppression going on there. The climax of the book is a planned march from Selma to Montgomery, a symbolic march to present their case on the steps of the state capitol.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Selma, but the first outing doesn’t go too well. Participants have gathered from across the US, and they are met on the opposite side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a litany of cops and unsupportive citizens. It’s a bloodbath, and the nightly news broadcasts it across the US.

Perhaps you know what happens next, but Book Three is still a page-turner. This book in particular lends itself to a graphic novel treatment, and illustrator Nate Powell has done a fabulous job. Famous people depicted in the series may not be an exact likeness, but we know who they are—the action and emotion of the illustrative choices more than makes up for what I believe was a deliberate choice on the illustrator’s part. I really hope this does win the National Book Award.

In addition to learning a lot of details I didn’t already know about the civil rights movement, this book gave me a lot of hope. Reading it sparked my brain to meditate about voting, yes; but also how far we have come in the 50 years since the events in the book. We have societal woes today that are akin to those depicted in the series, but if there’s one big idea I took from the series, it’s that losing a battle doesn’t mean losing a war. Just keep marching on.

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A Friend’s Legacy: Bryon Burruss and the Famous Tuscan Springs

BBCollage

Let’s say one day you’re at work, maybe feeling a little under-engaged with whatever it is you do. Someone you know crosses your mind, and you say, “hey, let’s give ‘im a Google!”

And about 20 seconds later, you learn that they recently died.

Last month, this happened to me. (“Local Author, Former Scribe Passes Away.”) Bryon died of a “massive heart attack” in his home on St. Patrick’s Day. He was discovered by his housemate. He was 48 years old.

Over the last few weeks since I went a-Googling, I’ve been ruminating over every detail about Bryon I can remember. Searching in my records for notes sent, remembering details, trying to make sense of how a close friend could be gone just like that. Having the random crying jag when I remember another detail of something that’s so important to me, that I may not know about if it wasn’t for him.

In Summer 2001, I met Bryon Burruss when I was in a Portland production of The Famous Tuscan Springs, a play he wrote with his friend Joe Hilsee. We started corresponding shortly thereafter, and the last time I heard from him was via text in August 2010, about two weeks before I was to move to Canada and start my graduate program. The last time I sent him a brief email was the following summer, when I was in Montana and my brain was starting to work again after a tumultuous year.

He had a master’s degree in theater but lived in rural California. Yet he managed to open a theater company and keep it running for five years. The theater encouraged aspiring playwrights each year by holding a new plays festival—submissions came from around the world. Those plays that didn’t quite make the stage were sometimes adapted for radio, which he produced.

Theater was Bryon’s love, possibly more than anything else in the world. The pains he took to keep that theater running were great.

Perhaps those are the facts that most people could tell you. What I alone could tell you is this: Bryon once suggested a medicinal tea which is still my go-to for colds, a decade later. I sent him the script of a favorite play—Killer Joe by Tracy Letts—and a year later his theater performed it. Bryon suggested I might like a Canadian television program called Slings and Arrows, which was about a Shakespeare company in Ontario. When I got the first season on DVD, I anticipated watching the first hour and then doing the dishes. Six hours later I was exhilarated, watching the final few minutes after I just could not turn the thing off. When Bryon was desperate for readers for his slush pile of new plays, I gladly helped out, reading in one case a rather large box of scripts over the course of just a few weeks.

Aside from theater, Bryon had another special project as well. The Famous Tuscan Springs, the play I was in, was a real place that existed outside of Red Bluff, California. In addition to writing a play about the place, Bryon knew pretty much all there was to know about the resort that sat there in the early part of the 20th Century. At one point, I helped him locate a booklet held in a medical library in New York City that he was previously unaware of.

BBTuscanSpringsBookCoverIt turns out that when his life ended unexpectedly, Bryon was having some success with his Tuscan Springs research. Tuscan Springs was released by Arcadia Publishing under their ubiquitous “Images of America” series.

There are plenty of other things I could say about Bryon too. At times, he seemed to be anti-feminist. Once, when I offered a feminist take on something, he snarkily asked if I would start talking about herstory. My vegetarianism also seemed to make him uneasy—he tried to convince me that in the town he lived, you just couldn’t be vegetarian. And yet, I never had any problem feeding myself when I was there.

The worst thing I could say about Bryon is, I never got to say goodbye to him.

Naturally, I purchased a copy of Tuscan Springs. I never saw Bryon’s collection of imagery and artifacts on the few occasions we visited, but so far I’m impressed by what he managed to dig up over the years.

Readers, friends, to everyone I say—you make sure and take care of that heart of yours. Treat your body well. Cherish the relationships you have, even if they’re not perfect—one day you may wake up to discover that person you’ve known for years is gone.

Goodbye, Bryon.

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Live-Tweeting The Doris Diaries

If you’re interested, I’ve been live-tweeting the latest volume of The Doris Diaries on Twitter (@wildsheepchase) as I read. Time is sparse these days so the live-tweeting has been happening in spurts, usually about an hour long, and at different times of day.

In this volume, Doris has a less-than-ethical relationship with “Dr. Abel Scott,” an intern who treated her at what is now Good Samaritan Hospital in NW Portland:

Dr. Scott is the one name in the book that has been changed. Perhaps it’s because he practiced in Portland for many years, or perhaps it was because he was married at the time. At any rate, it’s a tantalizing mystery and I wish I had asked Julia Park Tracey about it when she was in town for the Doris Diaries release party!

In this volume the Baileys move to California, and Arizona shortly thereafter. Doris gets a horse named Mac, who she rides every morning if she can. Adventure at the corral:

Apart from her adventures and romantic liaisons, Doris does show the promise of being a decent writer. She’s also quite grateful for surviving a burst appendix:

We’ve got about half the book still left to go, and word on the street is the relationship with Dr. Scott gets even more interesting. We’ll also see Black Tuesday (aka the stock market crash of 1929). Join me for some Doris dispatches!

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October 5, 2013 · 12:00 PM

A Readin’ Machine (Or, Squeezed Out)

Earlier this year I set a goal: as a participant in the Goodreads reading challenge, I would aim to read 12 books this year. On April 15th, I met my goal.

Over the last couple of months reading has been my primary downtime activity. I’ve read books in less than 24 hours while waiting for feedback on the latest draft of my project report, waiting for the Portland rain to subside, or just because I was so excited to finally read the thing.

I unloaded much of my library before my temporary move to Canada, but plenty of books remain that need to be read. I’ve read newly acquired books, borrowed books, and library books. I’ve sold a few back to Powell’s since reading them, and plan to continue paring down my library once I’ve read some more titles. This isn’t even including the magazines I’ve piled up, nor the scholarly articles about bikes I found on JStor a couple weeks ago that I want to read just for fun.

A few of the books I’ve read have inspired some wistful nostalgia. Ever since getting back to Portland it seems my brain has soured a fair amount on my hometown. (I’ve a half-written blog post about this, but it’s a weighty topic, likely to be unpopular with most of the transplants I know, so I’ve been keeping it to myself—for now.) Reading three books in a row that reminded me of Portland Past then, was enough to push me into a full-on nostalgia bender.

The first book was Dark Horse’s recent release The Green River Killer: A True Detective Story. Sure, this is a story primarily set in Seattle, but as a Pacific Northwesterner growing up in the 80s, Green River Killer news (also Diane Downs news) was pretty pervasive. When I was a kid, my mother’s favorite books were true crime novels, and I sometimes I picked up her books and browsed the photo plates in the center. Let me tell you something: you cannot un-see some of the photos in those books.

Next was Beverly Cleary’s memoir A Girl from Yamhill. Portland’s own literary hometown heroine, Beverly Cleary was born in the Willamette Valley south of the city but spent much of her childhood in NE Portland, the setting of her Ramona books (and current site of the Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden). I picked up the memoir at Goodwill for a couple of bucks. So much time had passed since its original release I wasn’t expecting to find it as utterly engrossing as I did. In the book, I discovered that Ramona is essentially based on Cleary herself as a child, and the book includes some very specific incidents that I remember were written into Ramona the Pest.

The book also illuminates moments when Cleary was encouraged by teachers in specific ways that set her on course for her adult career. In one masterfully written passage, she talks about her mother often encouraging her to “try.” When she takes this message to heart and enters an essay contest at a local grocery store. She wins—because no other children entered the contest:

“This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying.” (p. 132)

Given the amount of care I spend on blog posts (and nearly everything else I write), often I wonder why I continue. This is the reason: I am trying. And even if nobody sees my online opining, I’m continuing to develop my writing for future professional writing opportunities.

Where does the nostalgia come in? In the beginning of the book, Cleary writes about Oregon weather masterfully, as if she too has patiently sat through as many Oregon winters as I have, waiting for the spring:

“I stood at the window watching the weather, the ever-changing Oregon clouds that sometimes hung so low they hid the Coast Range, rain that slanted endlessly on the bleak brown fields, stubble stiff with frost, and, sometimes, a world made clean and white by snow.” (p. 30)

Later in the book she paints a vivid picture of Depression-era Portland, peppering the text with references from the past. In fact, at two points she draws attention to phrases Portlanders say, and that’s where the real nostalgia set in. She remarked on Portlanders observing “the mountain is out today.” Of course, “the mountain” is Mt. Hood, being “out” refers to being able to see it on a non-overcast day, and that is a phrase I’ve neither heard, nor used myself, for years. It set my brain on a path of thinking about the ways in which Portland has changed over the past decade as the city has become more notable nationally and internationally.

Perhaps the area of Portland that has changed most in the past decade is NE Portland, and the next book I read just happened to take place there in the 1980s. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is the current Everybody Reads book at Multnomah County Library, and I wouldn’t have read it had there not been a free copy at the circulation desk of my local branch when I visited. At certain points this book described a place and time in the past that I personally experienced. When the 1988 death of Mulugeta Seraw was referenced as a current event, this book ignited some synapses that hadn’t been fired in years. (If you’re not familiar, read A Hundred Little Hitlers by Elinor Langer.)

Since reading these three titles in a row (pure coincidence!) I’ve moved on to other fare. For a few days though, I was thinking about the Portland Past, both the one I have directly experienced and the one that belongs to my dead relatives’ memory. While I am glad I’ve gotten to know many of the transplants who have arrived in the last ten years, a small part of me feels like I’m being edged out by an invasive species. As the narrator in Said the Whale’s song “False Creek Change” laments about her hometown of Vancouver, BC, “there’s no room for me here anymore, anymore, there’s no room for me here anymore.”

If you’re interested in following my reading habits, this is my page on Goodreads.

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Social Change Through Literature: The Jungle and Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Apparently I’m an idealist. Or a perfectionist. Or maybe they’re the same thing, applied differently.

What that means is that for a very long time, I’ve thought it important to do my part to work toward what I see as a better future. The very first book that inspired and led to a big impact in my daily habits was Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Here’s one of the many passages that spurred the United States to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act (among other legislation) not long after the book was released:

“The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.”

The book didn’t exactly make me vegetarian. But it did keep me there, with its descriptions of the havoc the meat packing industry was creating for the poor Rudkus family, recent immigrants from Lithuania just trying to survive in a new country. Whether it was an anonymous worker falling in a vat and made into lard, or poor Marija, cutting her hand and almost losing it from infection, the novel was fantastic and tawdry. It was only coincidence that I decided to read this book shortly after deciding to try vegetarianism, but it cemented in my mind that I had absolutely done the right thing.

Another book that was instrumental as an agent of social change was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just finished writing a big paper about. At the time Stowe was writing the story, she lived in Cincinnati—right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a major slave state. Escaped slaves using the Underground Railroad were the source of much drama in Cincinnati. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, making it a crime for anyone to assist an escaped slave, Stowe officially solidified her alliance with the abolitionist movement.

She decided to combine the political arguments of the abolitionists with dramatic and sentimental fiction. Stowe depicted her African American characters as having distinct voices and feelings, rousing empathy in the reader that they may not have had before, and influencing their stance on slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an immense impact in the US and around the world. Legend suggests that the book was the single cause of the US Civil War—although that makes a good story, it’s perhaps a bit simplistic.

The point is though, that stories about sympathetic fictional characters set against a socio-political backdrop is a really effective method of changing people’s minds about the world around them.

Do you have any favorite novels of social change? What books could you envision having this sort of success in changing the world today?

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