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Oscar, who?

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When I was purging our home in Kansas of extra books and carting them to the Dusty Bookshelf to find new owners, I traded them in for both cash and credit. Cash is always good. Credit meant that I had to bring home new books! (Sort of defeats the purpose of purging, but new books are so fun!!) In addition to a nice paperback set of Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy for the girls when they’re a bit older, I got a few titles for The Librarian and me. I didn’t exactly pore over the shelves at the store; I just grabbed several books that were highly visible on displays and caught my fancy. I like used book stores for that kind of perusal. A new book store has displays that are dictated by the publishing market and its categories and by standard sales models for trade books. “Historical fiction” here and “Biographies” here and “Best Sellers” here. A used book store, even when it’s arranged by genre, is an ever-changing, eclectic hodgepodge of books old and new and, while I might not find titles piling up in my IndieBound “to-read” list, there is always something interesting right there in front of you.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao leapt into my hands. I gave it first to Dale, since I still have a pile of books from the MLA waiting to get read. He was flying back and forth between Canada and Kansas and had plenty of reading time. His verdict: took him a while to get into it and then “wow!” Since I find him to be a rather demanding fiction reader, this was high praise. After reading it myself, I feel completely under-equipped to write a review of it. Reading it was like reading a Bildungsroman, a family tragedy, and a history text all rolled into one. The layering of Oscar’s family story over the history of the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century was heartbreaking and fascinating and totally new to me. I learned that what I know about the Dominican can be put in a mental thimble, and it really cast a light on the general ignorance of this average American regarding the politics of our regional neighbors and how this affects American communities, too.

Oscar’s story is an immigrant story; his life is intimately connected to both the Dominican and the New York/New Jersey communities to which his family immigrated. His life between these two worlds is a difficult one–he doesn’t fit in either place. He lives in the Dominican communities in New Jersey, without being one of the (sex-crazed, cool, vaguely criminal) Dominican guys. In some ways he is more at home in the DR but that, too, is an odd fit for him. He’s a chubby kid, obsessed with comic books and fantasy novels, and lives in a world of his own making inside his head. He writes stories, fantastical stories with hero-save-the-day plot lines, and imagines himself inside them. We, the reader, don’t know what’s in those stories, only the vaguest notions of how obsessive he is about them, and the fact that they are decidedly genre fiction of a particular sort.

As Oscar grows up, he loses some of the weight, loses some of his connection to genre fiction, and tries to find himself in the DR. His family saga, a curse (supposedly) that follows his family, whether they are in the Dominican or in New Jersey, fascinates him and he travels to his family’s home in the DR to try and discover what it is–to discover himself. I’m not sure if this search is ultimately successful. As a reader, I’m left with the feeling that the curse Oscar is researching is the particular Latin American violence that formed each generation of his family, regardless of where they lived. The violence that forced them to flee the DR and the consequences that call them back.

But the plot is almost secondary to the reading experience of the novel. Diaz’s prose is so forceful, it sweeps you along in a torrent of anger and frustration and this compulsion to tell his story to an ignorant reading audience. The footnotes, where our author–or is it our narrator, Yunior?–gives us the background information on the politics and violence of the Dominican Republic in the twentieth century, and the USA’s role in abetting that, are just as important as Oscar’s story. Indeed, they form the context for understanding Oscar’s own search for a narrative that houses him.

It’s a humbling book, both because of the ignorance it exposes and because of its powerful prose. Totally worth a trip to the library or used book store of your choice.


Written by Jennifer

July 11, 2011 at 8:34 am

Where all the kids are above average . . .

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I’ve been reading Swedish crime fiction. Along with the rest of the Western World, I’ve read two of the three books in the Stieg Larsson “Girl” series. As I mentioned earlier, these are good page turners and, unrelatedly (maybe) very violent. I’ll read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest just for the hat trick, but I’m rather over Larsson. The reasons why have been explained in so many other venues, it really isn’t my place to repeat them. I believe it was Joan Acocella in the Jan 10th issue of The New Yorker who laid it out the best: his stories are good but his writing is atrocious. I can only imagine what these looked like before the unsuccessful editing job.

So, to keep in the vein but aim for tighter prose, I read The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. Mankell’s cop and his police narratives obviously served as a source of inspiration for Larsson and I can see why. They’re well written and seedy all at the same time. What strikes me though, especially as I being listening to an audiobook of The Pyramid by Mankell, is their joint interest in the decline–or decay–of the liberal Swedish welfare state and an abiding concern with what kind of Sweden will take the place of that mythical Nordic land where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average. (props to Keillor)

Since you can all go read Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell for yourselves, I won’t go into the details of their concerns with the welfare state’s demise in Sweden. They are concerned about crime, about fascists, and about how Sweden is changing. At one point in The Fifth Woman, Kurt Wallander opines that Sweden is changing for the worse. Sweden used to be a country where people darned socks and now it is not. People throw away worn out socks and this disposable society also means that people are more likely to get tossed aside, as well. The care for fragile things, the investment of one’s time in simple things (like repairing a sock that was likely hand-knitted) have no place in the current, fast-paced, materialistic world, in which the individual is concerned with him or herself alone and not with the welfare of the entire tribe.
When I read this, I immediately thought that Sweden is becoming more American. The USA invented the disposable, one-size-fits-all culture of commerce and slowly but surely have been importing it all over the world since the end of WWII. Poor Sweden, one is inclined to think. Of course, Sweden makes its own decisions and their immigration policies, tax policies and the like have just as much influence on the changing face of their nation as any sort of Americanization creep I might posit.
This past summer, when we were driving across Germany and France with the kids, I got to thinking about how Germany today is not the same country I lived in for the first time 20+ years ago. There are the little things–like the fact women shave their armpits and legs and deodorant is stocked in drugstores–and then there are larger things, too, that are harder to name that just make it feel “different,” or, really, more American. I pondered this for a while and came to a rather different conclusion than “the US, through its media and military, are infiltrating the rest of the world in the attempt to turn everyone into us.” The source lies elsewhere, methinks and it is arrogant of me to assume that my country has anything to do with changes in western European democracies. We are a superpower and stuff, but let’s not assume tooooo much importance, shall we?
Germany and its politicians are full of laments about the  “state of things today.” Angela Merkel has famously declared that the multicultural experiment in Germany has failed. Several years ago there was a political kerfuffle about the CDU’s demand that immigrants commit to the principles of Germany’s “Leitkultur,” (or dominant culture). These things sound horrible and call up images of Germany’s repulsive xenophobic, racist past. But perhaps these people are merely responding to that same feeling that I have when I think about the Germany of 25 years ago. The country has changed. The relatively homogenous culture of the past, where all shops were closed on Sunday (the Lord’s day), people swept their sidewalks, hung lace curtains in their kitchen windows, and used plastic gloves to handle fruit and veggies in the supermarket before putting them into their cart is impossible to maintain in the face of growing immigration and, let’s not forget, more porous borders with other European countries.
It isn’t Americanization that I see in Germany, it is globalization–or, perhaps more accurately–the growing pains of a country that is become an very unwilling melting pot. Demographic changes related to immigration and urbanization, coupled with the deregulation of large sectors of the economy have changed the face of America radically since the end of WWII–and this change has been more aggressive and more pronounced since the Reagan era. These changes are now confronting Europe, as their economies begin to look more like the US economy and less like the social welfare states of the previous century. Since these changes go hand in with increased immigration in Germany, it is easy to lump them together causally, but I just don’t think that is justified. Germans don’t darn socks anymore, either.

Written by Jennifer

April 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

International Women’s Day

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I am a feminist. According to Webster’s that means that I espouse the theory of the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. And, since those conditions of equality do not exist in the United States, or anywhere else on this planet, I believe in organized political activity on behalf of women.

I am a feminist because I want to show my girls a world in which men and women live their passions, not merely their pre-assigned gender roles. I am a feminist because I believe women should get equal pay for equal work. I am a feminist because I believe that women should be sovereign over their bodies. I am a feminist because I believe that the worth of a woman is not contained in her bust measurement or her waist line.

On International Women’s Day 2011, I want the world to know that I am a feminist.

Written by Jennifer

March 8, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Posted in life, politics

Old Country/New Country

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The nuclear family has been reunited since May and back in our humble Kansas abode since August. We’ve painted a couple of rooms, cut down a ton of trees, and hunted a squirrel out of the attic. Ahhh, the joys of home ownership.

We miss Germany–all four of us. Greta and Dale miss it perhaps more intensely than Ingrid and I do, but even Ingrid asked me today why we weren’t doing New Year’s Eve in Leipzig again, since we had so much fun last year. We miss the slightly slower and more sane pace of life in Germany, even the fact that stores are closed on Sundays. We miss our friends. We even miss the challenge of doing everything in an environment that is a little foreign, in a language that is not our own. Germany is a big part of our lives, professionally and personally for Dale and me. When I hear of other families going to South Africa or to Antigua or to Australia for vacation, I wonder if that will ever be us, since the thread connecting our lives to Germany is more like a rope these days, with a constant tug at the other end.

A new country is being added to the mix, though: Canada. Dale leaves for his new position at the end of January. I’m selling the house here and spending the rest of the academic year with the girls. Solo parenting again. We’re all a bit anxious, for a variety of self-interested reasons. Greta is bummed that she just got back to Kansas and now has to go to ANOTHER FLIPPIN’ COUNTRY and has let us know that it is ALL OUR FAULT. Ingrid is concerned about missing her “favorite friends,” and I have to say that I am 100% with her on that one. I am not only going to miss my friends terribly but have the added uncertainty of not having a job in (or near) our new locale. I’ve applied for one position, so the odds are stacked against me as far as employment goes. Unemployment is fine for the short term, since we’re calling the next year a “husband-funded sabbatical” for me. Book manuscript, here I come.

It is not all anger and anxiety, though. Secretly, Greta is looking forward to another challenge. I think Kansas is a bit of an anticlimax after Leipzig, in terms of new experiences and cool things to do. And Dale and I anticipate (perhaps a bit optimistically) a return to a country with a more tightly-woven social welfare network. Plus, there will be ice skating, the possibility of back-yard hockey rinks, lakes and rivers and waterfalls, more snow, cross country skiing. And moose burgers. I hear moose burgers are awesome!

Ingrid and I need new passports; we need to have the mother of all garage sales; and I need to break it to the kids that the spelling rules in grade school are about to change.

Written by Jennifer

January 2, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Kids, life, politics, sports

Tagged with ,

Saint Mark and the church of literature

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flickr – Newton Free Library

This is a post about influences, and how we become what we are. It is homage to four people who shaped or warped me, depending on your perspective.

Recently, while noodling around with the Stanza app for iPhones/Pods, I downloaded a few free e-books to read. One that popped into my head while searching for titles was Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It seems, sadly, that more people are familiar with the Looney Tunes retelling of the story than with Twain’s book. It is often mentioned only as an afterthought, while Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer shape the common view of Twain. Those are great books, but Yankee is a masterpiece of humor joined to savage criticism of human nature and institutions.

Way back in high school, our English teachers asked those of us in the honors English classes to end our sophomore and junior years by writing a long study of an American (10th grade) and English (11th grade) author. Having had the notion of non-conformity beaten into me in junior high by my late friend Shannon McGee (major influence number one–she later turned me into a feminist), I went the contrarian route and chose Mark Twain (number two) and Evelyn Waugh (number three). Have there ever been two more dyspeptic and wickedly devious anglophone writers? Unlikely. I devoured Waugh, reading nearly everything he wrote, save for Brideshead Revisited, since it was on PBS and was the one book of his that gets read (resist co-option, said Shannon). Paul Pennyfeather and Basil Seal were too divinely bizarre to be true, and the ostensibly drug-induced weirdness of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is burned into my consciousness. At first reading, I found speaking into flower vases shockingly odd; a few years down the road it made a lot more sense.

But it was and is Twain that speaks to my soul. Whenever Europeans begin to ramble on about the “fact” that America has no culture (bosh!), Twain is our armor and his prose is our sword. My father–a deeply religious man and the fourth influence–felt that faith based on ignorance is a worthless faith, thus he encouraged me to read broadly and find my own answers. That I did so is testimony to his method, even if from his point of view it backfired somewhat. I have no faith whatsoever (and no longer have issues with clearly stating that I am an atheist), but he gave me the moral compass that even my dear wife finds excessive at times. Two of the books he gave me in high school to read were C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and Twain’s posthumous Letters from the Earth. The former was a good read, but the latter made Twain into my own personal saint, and I have never ceased to sing his praises.

Until I picked up that copy recently for Stanza, I had not taken Twain’s Yankee into my hands for over two decades. Time had softened its blow, and I even considered reading it to my nine year old. Thankfully I desisted, for it is a grim and brutal tale at times, and certainly a bit too much for her as yet. For my part, I am reveling in nearly every page, as I see, 28 years after first reading it, how much it shaped my political philosophy and defined my ethical center. Entire passages have me nodding my head in agreement and get me fired up to start the revolution, since revolution is pretty much what the book is about.

So, thank you, Shannon, for cursing me with the gift of always choosing the harder path. Thank you, Waugh and Twain, for putting your humanity into eternal form, and lacing it with wit and sarcasm, the spices that make even the grimmest fare palatable. And thanks, Dad, for teaching me to make my own choices and giving me moral footing.

Written by Dale

June 8, 2010 at 6:08 am

Posted in books, life, politics

Twenty years ago

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On Tuesday, Germany will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There has been a nearly nonstop succession of television documentaries, events, interviews, and speeches to mark this event, and as one would expect one hears mostly that it was a joyous occasion beyond anyone’s dreams, but there is often a note of bitterness mixed in about the ways that unification, twenty years on, has left behind a lot of carnage and wounds, but psychic and financial, that have yet to heal.

Tonight I was sitting in front of the television watching one of those documentaries. 20 years ago on November 9, I sat, utterly speechless and weeping uncontrollably as I recall, before my television in Dillon, Colorado watching news that I thought would never come in my lifetime. Just two years earlier a West Berlin bureaucrat had told us, a visiting group of college students, that things had normalized and that the Wall was simply a reality one must accept. As he put it, the goal of his government was to find ways to make it more permeable–travel permits, exchanges, etc.–but that its existence was no longer really in question. He said this was no perceptible emotion and, in general, in those days there was certainly little or no unification urge or spirit in the Federal Republic.

While I sat there speechless that day in 1989, I also thought about two other more personal aspects of this stunning turn of events. First, I longed to be in Leipzig on that day. I had applied for but not received one of the rare Fulbright grants for East Germany, and had it been successful, I would have been a student at the then Karl Marx University in Leipzig and likely, due to my burning Americanness, taken part in the marches. The other thought was that my recently submitted application for a Fulbright to West Germany based on a topic concerning authors who had either left or been expelled from East Germany, was pretty much now bound for the circular file. As it turned out, it was successful, but that’s another story.

While watching tonight, perhaps as a result of having been bombarded with reminisces for the last two months, it finally dawned on me that one of the main forces behind 1989 in East Germany was the wish for Reisefreiheit, the freedom to travel, to determine one’s locale. Tonight, however, for the first time, it became clear to me that there was an aspect of the events of 1989 that I had never really considered, that being that the brave people who brought down the East German regime also gained me my Reisefreiheit.

In 1982, as a fairly naive 15 year-old high school student, I spent the better part of a summer living with a family in Berlin within a stone’s throw of the border to East Germany in far southwestern West Berlin. Transiting East Germany by rail and living within an island city made an indelible impression on me, and I sought every opportunity I could to spend time in East Berlin and Potsdam. Those trips are burned into my memory like little else from that age, and the impressions remain fresh and palpable and likely always will. It was a mix of fear, hatred (for smug border types and oppressive regimes), curiosity, and adventure that quickened the pulse and sharpened the senses.

Ironically, that was all I ever saw of the DDR. Although I read much about cities such as Dresden and Leipzig, it was impossible to visit them as an American without being on an organized group visa. I tried in 1987 while living in West Germany and was rejected, and ended up transiting East Germany to visit Poland. In 1990, after the Wall was opened, I even tried to bribe, outright, an agent for the East German state travel agency’s office in Bratislava so that I could visit what was left of the DDR before reunification.

I had spent considerable time in Eastern Europe at that point, and longed to visit the “other” Germany. My passport was littered with stamps that said DDR in that peculiar blue and orange ink, but all I knew of it were the signs I could say as the train rolled toward Berlin: Wittenberge, Staaken, etc. In college I had developed an interest in East German literature and read everything I could. While others read Mann’s Buddenbrooks or Frisch, Dürrenmatt, et al., I devoured Wolf, de Bruyn, Braun, and Becher. I wrote my senior thesis on Jurij Brezan, and had hoped to visit the grand old man of Sorb literature if I had gotten the grant for Leipzig. In fact, visiting the Sorb homeland in the Lausitz was one of my main motivations for seeking a visa to East Germany.

And so, in 1989, I now realize, I, too, was granted my freedom to travel to East Germany, and am now fortunate enough to live in a grand city such as Leipzig. I cannot express how much I admire and appreciate those people, some of whom are my neighbors now, who took to the streets in 1989 to topple a decrepit but still dangerous regime. It is a mistaken assumption on the part of many Americans and Europeans that we are “free” while others live under the yoke of dictatorships. As an American, my government prohibits me from travelling to any number of lands with whom we have chosen to pick quixotic fights that have nothing whatsoever to do with citizens of either nation as individual human beings. Our foreign policy and incessant use of military force makes other regions simply too dangerous to visit, merely by dint of having an American passport and regardless of my personal views on the matters. I have no general Reisefreiheit.

Freedom, so oft on the tongues of American presidents, German chancellors, and others of their ilk, has many aspects and meanings, and while certainly much was gained in 1989, it is equally clear that some things were also lost. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, I hope to take a moment to reflect quietly on the events of 20 years ago, and silently weep in gratitude for those who stood up for my freedom, too. May I be so bold someday.

Written by Dale

November 7, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Posted in Leipzig, life, politics

Tagged with , , ,

The enduring brown cloud

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One of the constants of my many sojourns in Germany, whether one speaks of 1982 or 2009, is the enduring presence and influence of the radical right. Back in the 1980s it was the Republikaner, today it is largely the NPD, but whatever they call themselves, they are neonazi fascists and truly despicable.

The other day I watched a ZDF documentary “Neue braune Welle” and was deeply disturbed by it. In many ways, it just reported what we already know, which is that the NPD and their ilk have a strong hold on disillusioned young men and remain prepared to commit violent acts. The disturbing part was that it reinforced my not-so-vague impression that the German police, in general, turn a blind eye to these pinheads, or go further and actually help support their activities. There is even a saying in Germany that the police are auf dem rechte Auge blind (blind in the right eye).

The Bavarian town of Gräfenberg has the misfortune to have become something of a magnet for this trash, likely due to the presence of a large war memorial. The NPD routinely organizes loud, ugly marches to the memorial, poking their finger squarely in the residents’ eyes. The townspeople got sick of it, organized themselves into a civic forum, and organized a counter protest in the form of a sit in blocking the approved path of the NPD march. Not only did the police assist the NPD with finding an alternate route, some of the organizers of the local counter protest received fines for blocking the march and others are being brought up on charges of obstructing a legal demonstration.

Given that the NPD is always on the cusp of being declared illegal (verfassungswidrig–unconstitutional–Germany’s constitution forbids neonazi activities), and since Bavaria’s interior minister has spoken loudly and forcefully of his support for such a ban, one would think that the events in Gräfenberg would motivate the politicians to take this final step and outlaw the NPD. Instead they choose to fine and prosecute people who want to defend their town against bigoted and hateful young men.

That this is shameful and disgusting would seem to be obvious. Alas, one sees so much latent anti-foreigner sentiment here that one suspects the NPD remains legal out of fear of a backlash.

[Note: I refrain from linking to the NPD. Remember that Google ranks pages based in part on how many times they are linked, so be cautious with links to noxious content.]

Written by Dale

September 2, 2009 at 2:47 am

Posted in German, Leipzig, politics