Slowing the Pace: Jaybar Crow

Jaybar Crow

By Wendall Berry

Published 2000

Read Aug 2019

Jaybar Crow is born in 1914 near Port William, KY (the setting for many of Berry’s books).  He’s orphaned at age 7 and goes to live with his aunt and uncle who pass within about three years.  At that point Jaybar  is sent to an out of town orphanage.  He briefly attends a small college on scholarship to become a minister but leaves when he realizes he doesn’t have some answers to important questions his congregation members will likely have.  He arrives in Port William in 1937 just as the town barber has left town with his family as the trade couldn’t support a family, but maybe could a single fellow.  As he had learned to barber while at the orphanage, an occupation has is found.  The local banker becomes convinced Jaybar can make the payments on the small building housing the barber shop—one room on the first floor for the shop; one room above for living quarters; outhouse in the back; no running water.  Jaybar settles into his trade and the barber shop becomes a fixture in the community.  He falls in love (from afar) with Matty who marries her high school sweetheart and Big Man on Campus, Troy Chatham.  Troy wants to be a big farmer too and jumps on the mechanization band wagon, buying tractors, and other equipment and  going into debt to pay for it.  This is contrary to Matty’s parents (and other neighbors’) ways.  In 1969 when Jaybar is 54, the health inspector gives Jaybar an ultimatum:  get running water in his barbershop or close down.  Jaybar chooses the latter and moves to a friend’s cabin on a nearby river.  He takes his barber chair with him and some of his customers follow him, but only providing him “donations” so he stays on the right side of regulations.   Thus Jaybar continues his life, just barely “on the grid”.  Between discussions of the goings on in the town, there are stretches of Jaybar’s thinking about faith including the questions that prompted him to leave college.

Berry beautiful language and pace forces the reader to slow down and savor the spinning of his tale of a past time when things were simpler and slower and a person’s interaction with “the grid” could be very slight.  This reader lives part of the year in a rural area populated by Amish farmers.  All have some source of revenue to pay taxes and buy the goods they don’t make themselves (cloth, shoes, books, etc).  But their interaction with “the grid” seems limited to what’s required to live the disconnected lifestyle they’ve chosen.  Berry’s subtle message asks us to consider “who has it right”? 

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

Rosemary:  The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

By Kate Clifford Larson

Published 2015

Read June 2019

Kate Clifford Larson is a historian and writer who offers her readers a unique view of Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy.  Many, including this reader, have some awareness that Rosemary was mentally disabled/challenged and suffered an unsuccessful treatment for her condition—which this reader understood to be a lobotomy.  That the public eventually learned this means that Rosemary was not the “forgotten” daughter of the Kennedys but the term “hidden” certainly applies well.  Larson’s careful choice of words even for the title emphasizes her careful handling of this topic.

Larson’s book provides useful background on Rosemary’s parents, especially the upbringing of Rose Fitzgerald who eventually becomes the wife of Joseph Kennedy.  Rose was raised in an educated family and Rose fully expected to attend Wellesley College but was denied this opportunity by her father, then mayor of Boston, when the local archbishop strongly discouraged it, implying negative political ramifications if she completed her plans.  Rose instead attended the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart where her well embedded Catholic faith was further crystallized.  She married Joseph Kennedy, son of a business and politician, who was a rival of her father’s, after a seven year courtship. 

Rosemary was the third of nine children.  The opening section of Larson’s book explains her condition:  she was held in the birth canal too long, awaiting the doctor for delivery.  He was detained due to treating others for the 1918 Spanish flu raging through the area.  This limitation of oxygen for too long impacted Rosemary’s cognitive abilities which allowed her to reach approximately fourth grade reading, writing, and math levels but not beyond.  

In 1918, support systems for families of children with various physical and cognitive challenges didn’t exist outside asylums.  Especially since Rosemary was as beautiful as the rest of the Kennedy children, and had no substantial physical limitations, Joe and Rose frankly didn’t acknowledge  her challenges until she was in grade school and wasn’t keeping up with the other students nor with her bright and active siblings.  Rather, they reprimanded Rosemary for not trying hard enough. 

Eventually Rosemary was in enrolled in the first of a long series of boarding schools that promised to address her problems.  Unfortunately incomplete communication by Rose regarding the extent of the problem and the frankly callous (this reader’s opinion) dismissal that being moved abruptly from her family to a boarding school (and on to the next and the next) would be emotionally challenging for any child, especially one with some cognitive challenges, resulted in boarding school X’s expulsion of Rosemary from their student body.  Only when the Kennedys were in Great Britain, when Joe was sent there as US Ambassador to the UK, did Rosemary find a school that provided her a sense of belonging and purpose.  She came to view her position there as assistant teacher as her day included reading to and caring for the younger children.  Unfortunately she was pulled from that school when the UK came under grave threat from Germany.

Although Rosemary had cognitive challenges, she grew into a beautiful young woman with similar feelings about her appearance, social engagements, and boys shared by her sisters and other young women.  Rose included Rosemary in presentation of her daughters to the Queen early in Joe’s tenure as Ambassador. Of course there were concerns that Rosemary might not fully understand how to behave so she was always closely monitored by her siblings and her brothers Joe and Jack provided the majority of her dance partnerships.  Sister Kit (Katherine) (2 years younger than Rosemary) initially provided Rosemary much support and guidance.  Eunice (3 years younger than Rosemary) took those reins and provided Rosemary much sisterly support throughout her life. 

Although Rose indicated in her autobiography, Times to Remember (1974) “I looked on child rearing not only as a work of love and a duty, but as a profession that was fully as interesting and challenging as any honorable profession in the world and one that demanded the best I could bring to it.”, she certainly benefited from the growing wealth provided by Joe’s businesses.  She took many long vacations by herself, leaving her children in the care of the household staff.  She certainly spent time and substantial money on finding schools and later nursing care for Rosemary as attested by the letters and detailed invoices she saved and that were given to the Kennedy Presidential library.  However she seemed to remain distant from Rosemary.  Late in Rose’s life, after Joe’s death and after Rosemary was put into care at a nursing home in Wisconsin, Rose requested her children provide Rosemary nice gifts for her birthday.  It’s not clear she actually visited Rosemary at this home, although the Kennedy wealth did build a small home for Rosemary on the facility’s ground and provided her the full-time caregivers she needed.

Larson provides the reader a very thorough look at Rosemary’s life.  This reader was impressed by and appreciated the lack of judgement of any of the Kennedys regarding their care of and interactions with Rosemary.  She fully leaves that type of conclusion to be drawn by the reader if they so choose. She leaves to the reader how to digest the information that Joe Kennedy was drawn to recent articles about the success of a type of brain surgery to cure many ails, including those Rosemary suffered.  We learn, through written correspondence, that he was cautioned by his daughter against this procedure for Rosemary.  But in his desperation to protect the family and, hopefully, to help Rosemary, the procedure is applied.  Unfortunately this left Rosemary further cognitively damaged and physically disabled as well.  She regains some of the physical capabilities lost by the cutting of her brain, but she needs full time care for the rest of her life.

 Larson acknowledges the extraordinary amount of information she found in the Kennedy Presidential Library where all of Rose’s correspondence and many invoices regarding Rosemary’s care landed following Rose’s death.  This reader is struck (again) that such information will likely not be so readily available for future historians researching subjects born and raised in the electronic era.  This reader is grateful to Larson for reviewing and using this information to provide such a detailed and view of Rosemary Kennedy and for the context of her life against the historical era in which she was born and raised.   Without that context, it would be impossible for current readers to understand how and why she was treated as she was.

Fortunately there is a positive part of this story.  Sister Eunice (Shriver) became a strong advocate for cognitively and physically challenged people.  As Executive Vice President of the Joseph P Kennedy, Jr Foundation, she shifted the organization’s focus from Catholic charities to research on the causes of mental retardation and humane treatments of it.  She was instrumental in initiating the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961 during her brother, John’s presidency.  A result of this panel was the establishment, in 1962, of the National Institute of Child Health and Development, as part of the National Institutes of Health.  In 1963 she disclosed information that Rosemary was developmentally disabled.  Her brother, the President, also spoke about this.  Eunice’s numerous efforts included establishing the Special Olympics in 1968.   Thus Rosemary Kennedy’s legacy includes prompting a radical change in how the cognitively impaired are viewed and treated.  Eunice applied her family’s prestige and wealth, and her brothers’ political positions to ensure that not only would Rosemary no longer be hidden, but that the world’s view of cognitive and physical challenges would be forever changed.

While this reader has provided much information she learned as a result of reading this book, this reader strongly recommends you read this book yourself to benefit fully from Larson’s research and writing. This reader benefitted from discussing the book with others, including a retired “special education” teacher.  These discussions helped this reader more thoroughly appreciate the wealth of information and perspective that Larson provides and the vast shift in society’s views of persons with these challenges—that are, in part due, to Rosemary Kennedy and her family.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh:  The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

By Carl Zimmer

Published 2018

Read:  July 2019

This large (672 pages) book is quite a treasure.  Zimmer, a Yale graduate with a BA in English, has been writing about science since 1989.  He’s written 13 books including two text books:  The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution (first edition 2009, second edition 2013), the first textbook on evolution written for non-science majors, and Evolution: Making Sense of Life (coauthored with evolutionary biologist Douglas Emlen) (first edition 2012; second edition 2015; third edition to be published in 2019), a textbook for science majors.  He’s written countless articles about a range of science topics and is author of a weekly column Matter for the New York Times.    This particular book has received a large number of awards and honors from various literary organizations and this reader understands why. 

Carl Zimmer manages to help us understand how vast the concept of heredity really is and he then makes this huge field interesting and approachable.  He starts with a historical perspective about why we originally cared about heredity (who is the father, who gets the inheritance), proceeds through the concepts of bloodlines and genetics, confronts the messy eugenics movements over the ages, explores the power and problems associated purchasing your genetic information with products like, and confronts us with significant concepts regarding babies’ DNA becoming part of mom and perhaps her future offspring.  This is just a small sampling the huge number of concepts that are part of the concept of heredity.  He teaches about basic biology,  miosis, genetics, and the new gene-editing technology, CRISPR, among many other biological, evolutionary, human developmental concepts in understandable, digestible,  and engaging ways.  He uses real-life stories—his own and others—to enable understanding of the concepts and challenge the reader to understand the complexity of heredity. 

My sole criticism of the book is that the chapter titles are meaningful to Carl Zimmer, and the phrase does eventually comes up during the chapter, but the Table of Contents and chapter titles are completely useless if you’re interesting in efficiently trying to re-explore concepts in them. The index provides some help in this regard. 

While a major volume to digest, it’s well worth the effort.  This reader was fortunate to be introduced to the book through a book discussion group at a local library.  Certainly having a deadline for the conversation provided some motivation to continue reading, but the book is very extraordinary so it was easy to meet that book discussion preparation goal.  Discussing this book with others was highly useful as each reader latched onto different concepts differently and sharing the experience of reading this book and what was learned was frankly quite thrilling. 

A Woman is No Man

A Woman is No Man

By Etaf Rum

Published 2019

Read Sept 2019

In 1990, in Palestine, Isra’s family receives a suitor, Adam and his mother, Fareeda.  Adam’s family had migrated from a refugee camp in Palestine to Brooklyn, NY in 1976.  Fareeda brought her son, Adam, to their homeland in 1990 to find a good Arab wife for him.  Within a few weeks Isra (17) has been married to Adam (30) and moved into to his parents’ home in Brooklyn.  Seven years later, Fareeda and her husband are left to raise Deya and her three sisters after their parent were killed in a car accident.  In 2008, Fareeda is focused on finding a suitor for Deya who is torn between loyalty to her family and Arab culture and her desire to have a life beyond being an obedient wife and mother.

Rum tells this story through Deya chapters in 2008-9, Isra chapters progressing through the 1990’s, and Fareeda chapters in both time periods as well as some flashbacks to her earlier years.   Through these three perspectives we learn about how three women have struggled with the culture Fareeda is so committed to maintaining even though they now live in America:  1) the only path for a woman is marriage; 2) a wife’s role is to have children, preferably sons, clean, cook and obey her husband and her husband’s parents; 3)  the role of the man is to provide for his family and keep his wife and daughters safe, pure, and obedient, beating them if necessary; 4) the role of sons is to support his father in providing for the family while supporting his own and to obey his parents.  This lead to the situation that a girl must be married off quickly to both to relieve the father’s financial burden and to ensure she is considered pure and desirable for marriage.  Fareeda’s marriage was fully arranged—she met her husband the day they were married.  By Isra’s time, the suitor and potential bride did meet before they were married but both sets of parents had authority over the decision.  For Deya and Fareeda’s own daughter, Sarah, the mothers sought out potential arrangements but the suitor and potential bride had some involvement in the decision.  However, both suitor and potential bride knew they had no choice but to marry someone suitable to their parents so their say was still limited. 

Deya she is anxious to go to college before marrying and to marry for love, not by arrangement.  She was only seven when her parents died but she knows her mother was very sad and was regularly beaten by her husband.  She wants to avoid that fate and wants to know more about her mother to understand the whys behind the situation.  Her grandmother wants her to forget the past and agree to a suitor as quickly as possible—most of Deya’s Islamic girls-only school classmates have already made contracts with suitors or are even already married.  She even tells Deya that Isra’s problem was that she was possessed by jinn.

I leave the rest of the story for you to discover but will indicate aspects Rum asks us to consider.  What barriers must be overcome by an individual, family, or a community to enable their culture to change and allow new roles and responsibilities for both women and men and how to accomplish this?  While the story of Isra is clearly heart-breaking, Rum gives us some view of Adam’s situation as well—a man who wants to be an imam but is forced by his family (through the requirement of obedience to his parents) to tend his father’s business, set up his own business, set up a business for his brother, pay for his other brother’s college education and father sons and not the four daughters he and Isra have.  Neither Isra nor Adam appears to have much choice in their individual or collective life path nor has either been given any tools which they can use to make their lives or the lives of their children satisfying.  Role modelling of their parents hasn’t been helpful but loyalty to family and their culture has been thoroughly taught and learned.

Throughout history, nearly regardless of location in the world, women and men have been initially rooted in a role and responsibility system that makes unmarried daughters a burden to the father and sons an asset to the family both as sources of financial support and a path for keeping wealth in the family.  Slowly this system has been cracked in many places and the roles and responsibilities of partners within families is much less rigid and choices are can be made by the partners, not solely dictated by past practices and customs.  This reader proposes this trend has allowed for a general lifting of well being for all parties.  Unfortunately some cultures retain the oppressive gender roles and responsibilities system, the members of which are literally moving to new locations through immigration as a result of oppression created by man (war waged at the country or “tribe” level) or climate change (i.e. drought).    America and other countries receiving immigrants are faced with the dilemma of wanting immigrants to assimilate into their society (whether or not they will allow them to become citizens (!)) and recognizing, to some extent, that immigrants shouldn’t be completely stripped of their culture as a result.  How then to handle the situation of Fareeda’s family whose culture includes wife beating as acceptable?  How then to challenge the value of loyalty to family when that family’s culture teaches and advocates practices unacceptable to other parts of society.

Rum’s story suggests that the individual plays the critical role.  Individuals can muster their strength to challenge.  Individuals can mentor, help, support other individuals in their fight to challenge and break ground for themselves or their children.  This too is a universal truth—individuals helped individual slaves find a path to free states, individuals help other battered women find safety, individuals help other alcoholics break free of their disease.  Individuals have responsibility to find strength for themselves and then have a responsibility to help others.  Then individuals can become a movement. 

Read this book to become aware of a culture that remains present in our own country and in other places.  Become aware of the challenges these individuals face.  Become an individual open to “the other story”.   Grow. 

The Devil’s Cave

The Devil’s Cave

By Martin Walker

Published 2012

Read Sept 2019

This reader received this book from her travel companion when we were about to embark on a biking trip in France.  What a delightful present!  This is a fun to read book for someone who enjoys criminal investigation stories.  I fully agree with the Washingtonian’s praise published in the edition read by this reader:  “An affordable way to have an adventure in the French countryside this summer…Strikes a captivating balance between suspense and delight.” 

This reader looks forward to more enjoyable reads from this author.

Female Persuassion

The Female Persuasion

By Meg  Wolitzer

Published 2018

Read Sept 2019

This reader has mixed feelings about this book. 

We meet Greer during the first weekend of her college career.  She is disappointed and angry with her parents that she had to accept a full scholarship at a lower tier liberal arts college instead of attending Yale. She couldn’t attend Yale, although she was accepted there, because Greer didn’t get any financial support from Yale due to incomplete a financial aid application provided them by her parents.   At a party that first Friday night, she is inappropriately touched by a young man at a frat party.  Eventually there is a hearing at the college about this and other similar incidents and the young man is given essentially a soft slap on the wrist.  Greer is angry but feels impotent.  Fortunately her new activist friend, Zee, takes her to a campus lecture by Faith Frank, a 60-something editor of a feminist magazine, Bloomer.  Greer and Zee run into Faith in the women’s room after the lecture and Greer leaves with her business card and substantial enthusiasm for the feminist concepts she heard at the lecture. 

After graduation, Greer lands an interview for a job at Bloomer.  Unfortunately Bloomer closes the day of her interview, but she is later contacted by Faith Frank for a job with her new foundation that is being financially backed by a venture capitalist (with whom Faith had a one-night stand some 40 years previously).  Greer joins with enthusiasm and Faith Frank becomes a mentor.  Over time the foundation’s work directly impacting women decreases and its work producing slick conferences with high ticket prices increases.  Eventually Greer learns of a controversy associated with a recent conference, confronts Faith, and quits the foundation.  In that encounter, Faith reminds Greer that Greer also had an ethical lapse when she first joined the foundation—Greer told Faith about, but never passed onto Faith, a letter from her friend, Zee, requesting consideration for a position. 

In the meantime, boyfriend Cory, following graduation from Princeton, where he had a full-ride scholarship, has joined a high-end consulting firm and is living somewhat decadently with other similarly aged consultants at the company’s Malaysian site.  His plans to make a lot of money fast to fund a start-up with some friends are interrupted when his family suffers a significant tragedy.  He returns home to care for his mother.  Greer initially shares his pain but becomes confused as he continues stays to help his mom and seems to have given up on his career aspirations. 

After graduation, college friend Zee joins a program that provides a few weeks of training to become a teacher in charter schools that have contracted with them to supply teacher.  She quickly becomes overwhelmed by the challenges she faces as an underqualified teacher in the charter school with high aspirations but little capabilities.  She leaves this position and gets training for and becomes a crisis counselor.  During this period, Zee comes out as gay and finds a life partner.  She learns that Greer did not pass on her letter to Faith but the friends eventually reconcile.

Greer is the only one of the three that seems to have a fairly easy path to success.  Despite the poor financial aid application, she still gets a full-ride scholarship to the second (third?) tier school.  Faith Frank takes her into a nice paying foundation job and provides her mentorship and sponsorship.  After quitting the foundation, she manages to write a feminist book, Outdoor Voices  that provides her with enough money to buy a brownstone home in Brooklyn and renovate it (if she hadn’t decided to divert the renovation money to her parents and Cory’s mom).  She reconnects with Cory and has a baby by the time she’s touring to promote the book.   

So why does this reader have mixed feelings about this book? 

On the one hand, Wolitzer describes well, and with great detail, the experiences of the three young people as they deal with the challenges of their college days.  She does similarly well with the post-graduation stories for Cory and Zee and raises the question of what constitutes an acceptable career trajectory.  Is Cory wasting his intelligence by caring for his mother, cleaning houses, and working at a local computer store or are family needs more important? On the other hand, this reader didn’t feels Greer’s path had the same credibility.

While the omnipotent narrator presents substantial detail about the feelings of Greer, Cory, and Zee, that narrator is fairly quiet when it comes to Faith Frank.  There is a section devoted to providing Faith Frank’s history, but it’s fairly brief compared to words devoted to the younger characters but does give us some unnecessary (to this reader) details of her short affair with the man who will eventually fund her foundation.   We see Faith’s actions at the foundation through Greer’s eyes but little from Faith’s view.   She’s been a rock star in the feminist world based on her book Female Persuassion.  She’s been the head of a magazine, Bloomer, that, while now closed, existed for 20+ years.  She continued to be a successful speaker, charging up new women to speak up.  But how does she feel about her new role and platform?  It’s not clear.

The most confusing aspect of the book for this reader was the lack of clarity about what feminism means now-its objectives, for whom, and who should be working for it.  Faith Frank’s conferences are priced such that their participants have substantial bank accounts who like to hear about power from movie stars while eating fancy food.  We don’t know how she really feels about her current work.  Why?  We know all the others’ characters feelings about many things.   Greer’s book Outside Voices seems to sending the message that it’s all about speaking up.  This message is being sent by a woman who wrote speeches for other women based on stories she obtained from them, even when it wasn’t true.   Certainly mentoring and supporting younger women is important as is gaining your voice to be able to speak up.  But what else?  This reader is not sure that either Faith or Greer know the answer to this question either. 

White Rage

White Rage:  the Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

By Carol Anderson

Published 2015

Read July 2019

Carol Anderson is Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University.  Her academic prowess as a historian is exemplified in this concise but thorough review of the continuous barrage of barriers white Americans have placed in the path of progress of their brethren black Americans.  This was a difficult book for this (white) reader to read, not because of her exceptionally clear writing, but rather because her work makes clear how much this reader didn’t know about the history of the United States.  She starts her work during the Civil War and continues through the Obanna administration.  While this reader had some familiarity with Jim Crow laws, methods to prevent blacks from voting (various techniques utilized over the decades), red-lining, unstated Jim Crow in the north, using the “drug wars” to incarcerate blacks at an unimaginable, Anderson describes the systematic aspects of these attacks clearly and concisely.  Among new learnings for this reader include the meeting Abraham Lincoln had with leaders in which it was proposed that all black Americans agree to leave the United States and make a homeland in Panama and the liberty his successor, Johnson, gave southern leaders to trod upon blacks in order to keep them happy.    These learnings are the tips of the iceberg of what Anderson has to teach. 

This book is one that should be widely read so that our understanding of the history of the United States is more accurate and so that our understanding of the on-going struggle for equality has been horribly difficult and still is