My former boss, Min Jin Lee (from the time when I was a legal secretary and she was a lawyer) has written a book that is being widely appreciated, Pachinko. It is an excellent read from cover to cover. The characters come alive, the plot is sturdy and subtle, and the writing is incisive. It is about Koreans in Japan. If you are Korean or Japanese, you probably know a few scraps of this story, but aside from the occasional newspaper article or television report about “comfort women,” for example, I knew little of the enmity of the two countries. How odd that we lump them together in our minds when they are such deeply sworn enemies! Pachinko did not leave me chastising myself for ignorance though, it left me grateful for the insight. Since I was neither Korean nor Japanese, I read this as a cautionary tale. I am American, and inside America, we have the African population and the Native American population who have been treated as cruelly and hypocritically as the Koreans in Japan, not to mention the Italians, the Jews, the Irish, and our most recent targets, Muslims and Hispanics. The comparison is not always apt – there are a lot of differences between America and Korea/Japan, and it behooves us to take the time to note them. In the end, human beings have an irrational need to feel better than others, and that has caused us no end of suffering for no good reason. When you have been callously mistreated, you have several choices – jump lemming-like off a cliff, outwit your rivals at their own game, or stay so far below the radar that nobody notices you. I doubt that Min Jin Lee began her book as a didactic exercise in tolerating prejudice and cruelty – there is way too much humanity in it for that, but we can use it to examine our own reactions to injustice. Her knowledge of both cultures is deep, and whenever a person gets to know another person deeply, enemy or friend, it is impossible to view them without at least a grain of compassion. Her story has bountiful detail, perception, understanding, and conscience, besides allowing us to know several people deeply. They are fictional, but does that matter? I haven’t written much about the writing style because its transparency, skill, management of time and language, including the insertion of Korean terms which become familiar as the story progresses, is masterful. Don’t worry. You won’t put it down. Lee is also a wonderful reader of her own work, and if you have a chance to hear her at a venue near you, don’t pass it up. She is a person of massive intelligence and humor.
The Third Reconstruction, by The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, written with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, is a guidebook to social and spiritual renewal for America. The Rev. Barber considers the two kinds of renewal to be one and the same. While most of the principles espoused by Barber – feed the hungry, help the poor, heal the sick, train the imprisoned, teach the children, save the planet – are espoused by Democrats these days, Barber by no means excludes Republicans, atheists, and people of other religions. Not all people are knowledgeable about all issues, but we can stand together on those we do care about. He reminds the reader that the current problems of America have been developing for a long time. Donald Trump and recent elections are just the most recent iteration. Barber goes deep. He delves into historical precedent, biblical text (and texts from other religions as well), and long experience with social justice movements to instruct the reader. His style comes straight from southern preaching, changing the “altar call” into a call for action, “Who’s ready to go to jail today?” There were a lot of people who answered the call, and not all of them were Democrats – they were fighting for better treatment of “all God’s children.” I have attended teachings by Barber, and he is an approachable, charismatic, humorous, and well informed speaker. He has stories, quotes, people, places, dates, laws, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible and American history at hand. I am a Unitarian-Universalist, with a background in Christian Science, Episcopalianism and Judaism, but have never seen the Bible stories used to greater effect. You don’t have to hold dogmatic beliefs to understand the story of the Good Samaritan, though Barber presents a shiny, new Amos or Ezekiel, figures of lesser renown. Knowing that people have been fighting the same fight for justice and fairness for more than two thousand years is comforting and inspiring. It makes Facebook and Twitter irrelevant, the telephone dispensable, and made this reader realize, again, that it is our compassion and intelligence that matters, and you don’t have to go to college to be intelligent. I don’t personally pray, and don’t bother much with what the word “God” means, but Rev. Barber’s words moved me. He does not tarry with the latest scandal, but uncovers the heart of the matter. Reading him is interesting and inspiring; hearing him speak is more so.
The Subway Stops at Bryant Park is a collection of short stories written by N. West Moss. Reading it is a unique experience. Moss creates vivid characters – a Pakistani immigrant, a young college girl, an old woman of questionable mental capacity, and other unforgettable folk. At first I felt a lack of drama in the stories, especially in the endings, but they appear together in a larger picture that includes the main character of the book, Bryant Park itself, and that changes everything. Some characters work in the park, others visit it briefly, the same statue of Gertrude Stein is experienced by different characters, likewise the pianist who comes once a week to play there, and birds, and the plants. The park is a changing but unmovable presence, mired in garbage at times, dressed up for a party at others. In the first story, “Omeer’s Mangoes,” the park goes from lowbrow to highbrow over Omeer’s adult lifetime. After reading this story, it is easy for the reader to locate the park chronologically for the later stories. Moss is deft with her descriptions and has a particular facility with fresh similes and metaphors: “The patients looked like white-haired birds, perched in their wheelchairs, their mouths wide open, waiting for food and pills to be dropped in,” or “Her enormous fat rolls spilled out from underneath her shirt, smooth and round as a wet otter.” The language itself is a delight. Life and death, poverty and wealth, music, drama, poetry all drift through Bryant Park, pulling in the life around it. It exists in memory, in anticipation, and in contemporaneous action. The soft endings to each story only emphasize that each life puffs in and out of the park, then moves on, while the park itself remains eternal, or as eternal as things can ever be in New York City.
The male political candidates in 2016 breathed out a few words about “a woman’s right to choose,” but the bulk of discussion about abortion fell to Hillary Clinton, as if only women were qualified to speak on the subject. But if one-third of American women have had an abortion, then one-third of American men have had one, too, and it’s time they spoke up. Almost eighty percent of abortions take place before eight weeks, when the embryo is the size of a small bean. The woman may have suffered some morning sickness or minor discomfort, but the financial, personal, educational, familial, professional, and religious aspects of abortion would be equally shared between the pregnant man and the pregnant woman in an honorable relationship. I don’t hear men who are party to an abortion accused of murder. Do their priests threaten them with excommunication? Are men escorting their partners to an abortion heckled and assaulted as they enter the clinic? Does the silence of men indicate that they quickly put the experience behind them, or are they taking the easy road to avoid accusations and attacks? Men hold the cards, since they comprise a majority in most legislatures. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know which men in each legislature had been party to abortions? They aren’t the province of atheists and pagans, 13% of women who had one are evangelical Protestant and 24% are Catholic, so religious affiliation is no sure indication. Callous dismissal of abortion as an irresponsible abomination might be thrown around less often if male legislators owned up to their own experiences. When will a man stand up in Texas, as a female gubernatorial candidate recently did, and tell his story? His anguish was surely no less painful than his wife's. The nine men on the Supreme Court gave the decision-making power to other men in Article XI of Roe v. Wade, which states: “…the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.” In 1973, almost all “physicians” were male. Liberals campaigning for “a woman’s right to choose” are hoping to prevent the overturning of Roe v. Wade when, in fact, they should be requesting a rewrite, taking out the middleman physician to give power to the woman herself. Subsequent rulings of the Supreme Court have weighed the rights of the pregnant woman against the rights of the pregnant man (as opposed to the physician), and have favored the woman, because it is she who would be taking the risks if the pregnancy were carried to term. The woman’s decision-making power would be more secure if the original law were rewritten in her favor. It is likely that at least one of the nine justices who ruled in Roe had been party to an abortion. If the one-in-three statistic played out, three of them would have been. One hopes that the affected justice(s) showed more compassion than men who had never faced the consequences of a crisis pregnancy. A man cannot have the power to force a woman either to carry a pregnancy to term, or to have an abortion, but that does not mean that the men are immune to the heavy thoughts that a crisis pregnancy engenders. I had an abortion in 1961, twelve years before Roe v. Wade. When the doctor gave me the bad news, my boyfriend was in Innsbruck, Austria. I wrote him, and he wrote back: “I’m about to leave for a bow-and-arrow hunting trip behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, and I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get back. Good luck.” I saw him several months later, and he was solicitous about my health, but he had missed the hard part, and never offered to pay for half of my expenses. I have recently learned that he, let’s call him Frank, now lives in Hawaii, in a town which I visit from time to time. What would happen if I walked into his business and said, “Hi Frank. Remember me?” Would he remember me? How would he feel? Does he occasionally ruminate for a quick second that he might have had a child who would be 58 years old now? Has he ever mentioned his part in an abortion to anyone else? His wife? Is he still glad that I didn’t have the child and give it up for adoption, which would mean he had a son or daughter somewhere? Would he say he was sorry for abandoning me? Has he ever wondered where I got the necessary five hundred dollars – a lot of money in 1961? Did he wonder who drove me to the abortionist’s office and waited for hours till I came out? Did his feelings about having children, or, for that matter, having sex, change after this? I don’t know what I will do the next time I’m in Hawaii. I’m seventy-five years old now and have nothing to lose – I might just pop in on Frank. He is one of the few men I know who I am sure has been party to an abortion. I would tell him that I never have regrets, and that I worry about the young women whose safety is now at risk. I would ask him whether, knowing how easy it is to slip into a crisis pregnancy, he has these same worries. Frank clearly thought abortion was a “women’s issue” in 1961. I’d ask him if, after fifty-eight years of reflection, he still thought so.