More nonfiction

More than Just Race, William Julius Wilson

My library said that it had all these books by bell hooks, on whom I developed a girl crush in college, but when I went to the section of the library where bell hooks’s books were supposed to be, there were none! I should have checked to see that it was my branch of the library that has those books. But I was too excited to read about racism to just walk away, and I have heard many shiny good things about William Julius Wilson, so I checked out a few of his books.

More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City explores the structural and cultural factors that have contributed to racial divisions and persistent poverty in inner city neighborhoods. Wilson discusses all sorts of structural factors that have contributed to this. For instance, he cites one study that found that 80% of entry-level jobs are located in the suburbs, even though most entry-level workers are found in the inner city. Public transportation is terrible and nobody can get to work! It’s all highways, and not everyone can afford a car!

I was impressed with Wilson’s readiness to consider studies and theories that espoused views in conflict with his own, as well as to point up flaws in studies and theories that aligned with his views. Although he is dealing with a number of fraught issues, as in the chapter on the economic plight of poor black men, or the one on the fragmentation of families, he is unfailingly thoughtful and careful, always acknowledging the difficulty of coming to conclusions about the relative importance of structural and cultural factors in the persistence of racial divisions and poverty in the inner city.

Has anyone else read this? I will add a link!

The Caliph’s House, Tahir Shah

This is what Tahir Shah did. He bought a mansion in Casablanca and moved there. The mansion came with three guardians, who insisted on mediating between him and the many Jinns they insist populate the house. The Jinns were (apparently) responsible for the hanged dead cats that showed up in the trees and scared his little daughter; for actually any misfortune at all that happened in the house. When Shah tried to renovate the house, the architects knocked down all the walls and seemed incapable of finishing anything. The first assistant he hired–

I have to stop. The catalogue of misfortune is too long to list it all again here. If I have ever in my life taken from any book the message that I should stay in my own hometown, and never leave, because if I leave, I will have no money and no walls and no working toilet and when I find myself unhappy about this state of affairs it will be blamed upon Jinns because everyone in Morocco believes in them (says Tahir Shah), IT IS THIS BOOK. The moral is, don’t travel. Ever. Never leave home. I am pretty sure that’s what Shah is trying to say.

Okay, I guess that is not the message. The book ends on a hopeful note. Don’t not read it because you are afraid it will convince you never to travel anywhere again. I was a coward long before I read The Caliph’s House. Long before. Years.

Shah can be very funny about the people he encounters in Morocco, and I really liked the way he structured the book, with little tidbits of several different stories at a time. He would tell a snippet of a story about his assistant with her romantic troubles, leave it for a while to talk about the gangster who lived in the shantytown near the Caliph’s House, leave that for a while to talk about the mysterious locked room in his house, to which the guardians will not provide the key. Until eventually you have the whole of all these stories. It feels frenetic and bewildering, like Shah’s life in the Caliph’s House.

Survey: Are y’all adventurous travel people? Or staying at home people? When you have a catastrophe while traveling, do you melt into nervous breakdown, or rise to the occasion and tell the story later with gusto?

I do the former. In 2005 I burst into tears in the Atlanta airport after 48 hours with no sleep and missing my connection and one suitcase vanishing and the other suitcase catching and ripping off one of my fingernails. So I sat down on the floor and cried and ate McVities chocolate digestive biscuits, and when an airport employee came to ask what was wrong, I could not formulate and produce a verbal answer. So I gave him a cookie instead. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. That is the kind of traveler I am.

Other reviews:

At Home with Books (thanks for the recommendation!)
S. Krishna’s Books
Tammy’s Book Nook
Lotus Reads

Let me know if I missed yours!

22 thoughts on “More nonfiction

    • bell hooks is a feminist writer. She writes about race and gender and sexuality and is generally made of awesome sauce. A girl in my queer theory class met her and said she was even awesomer in person.

  1. Wilson’s book sounds fantastic. I live in a very diverse metropolitan area and race relations is a subject that I think about pretty regularly, but need to read more about.

    Well at least with your airport breakdown story, you can still tell it entertainingly. 🙂 I love that you gave the guy a cookie in lieu of explanation.

    • It was very good–and short! I zipped right through it and was surprised how quickly I found myself at the end.

      The airport guy did not at all know what to do with the cookie. He said, “Uh…thanks?” and went away again.

  2. When I have travel catastrophes in company with others, I am Adventure Girl. Like, there was this one time when my plane crashed on the way to England, and I was okay with it. It made a good story, and the airline gave us all a very brief stay in a hotel, a delicious breakfast and $100 to make up for it. (I thought the $100 was AWESOME; my mother, however, thought it was shameful and spent months trying to convince the airline to give us a full refund. She wouldn’t let me claim my cheque until they’d refused her four or five times).

    It probably helped that I found plummeting from the sky preferable to my then-job. Also, I went into a strange form of shock afterwards. Nothing–and I mean, nothing–scared me for about a week and a half. I was fully aware of this, and regret that I didn’t spend more time deliberately seeking out terrifying experiences.

    When I’m by myself, though, I find travel catastrophes terrifying. When I first moved to NZ, my private hostel room had a very dodgy lock on the door, I had a terrible time finding a place to live and I kept running into snafus when I tried to set up my bank account. I needed to show them photocopied proof of identity, so I had a photocopy of my driver’s license. The woman at the bank kept insisting that it was expired, even though it wasn’t, and I was so flustered that I failed to use logic to deal with the situation. (For some reason, Manitoba uses the American date notation system on driver’s licenses, so the woman thought it had expired on January 11th rather than November 1st. This would have been obvious if she’d looked at the date at which my license came into effect, but I was too thrown to point that out). I left and cried for a while, then got my international driver’s license from my hostel and tried to use that at a different bank, but the lady there wouldn’t let me because I only had the original and not a photocopy. So I cried in front of her, too. She was nice enough about it, but she still made me go to an internet cafe, instead of taking pity on me and using the photocopy machine right behind her.

    …and this is a very long comment, so I’ll shut up now.

    • Whoa, whoa, whoa. You can’t just be like “Oh, yeah, when my plane crashed…” and leave it at that. WHAT? Your plane fell out of the sky? TELL ME MORE.

      The thing about travel catastrophes and me is that I could probably handle them okay if I were well-rested, but the nature of travel is such that when travelling, I never ever am. So I break down completely.

      • Memory – I just want to chime in with Jenny and say that your nonchalant mention of your plane crashing does not in any way disguise the fact that it was not a routine travel mishap. Tell us more!

      • My plane crash story isn’t actually that interesting:

        I was flying to England with Air Transat, and we were about a half hour out from Montreal when the cabin depressurized. The oxygen masks popped out of the ceiling and the pilot had to dive the plane down to 10,000 feet so our heads wouldn’t explode. (NB: my father’s oxygen mask didn’t work. They eject four at a time, just in case there’s a problem with one, but it also happened to the people sitting in front of us. They were traveling with a baby, so they really did need four. The mother had to share hers with the little one). Then we made an emergency landing in Montreal at about midnight, had to find our own way to the airline-provided hotel since they were taking forever and a day to organize shuttles, and got about two hours of sleep before we had to head back to the airport and wait for a different plane to arrive and carry us over the Atlantic.

  3. I generally rise to the occasion, and especially if there are other people who are not coping, I turn into Little Miss Practical.

    But on occasion I will melt into nervous breakdown – your tale of airport woe rang a very loud bell.

    Having arrived at an airport some way outside Istanbul at 2am, I “slept” on a cold, hard airport floor till 5am, when I got a bus to the city, a ferry across the Bosphorus, then walked over the hill to my hostel. Halfway there, it was raining and I wasn’t sure where I was going, then I realised I’d lost my scarf and somehow it was the last straw. I burst into tears, stopping only briefly while I checked in to the hostel, then quietly wept as a very nice, very concerned Turkish lady gave me breakfast and found someone to translate as she asked me if I was alright.

    I slept till lunchtime then did nothing but eat, read and sleep till the next day, which revived my spirits enormously. Then I went on and had an extremely good and adventurous holiday.

    • Poor you! That sounds terrible. Wandering around strange rainy places is never fun.

      Yeah, when the people around me are failing to cope, I think I do better. My crisis counselor instincts kick in, and I become very practical, with the list-making and the one-step-at-a-time philosophy. Also, I think if I had more practice at dealing with emergencies, I’d get better at it, but who wants emergency practice? Blech.

  4. Your reviews are always hilarious and make me giggle. I have had a traveling experience much like yours, only there were no biscuits involved. I prefer to stay home, and if I do have to travel, it makes me anxious for weeks beforehand. All that being said, The Caliph’s House sounds like a really interesting book, although it also sounds like it’s full of misfortune. I am going to have to try it.

    • Same here–I like going to places I’ve already been, which makes it difficult to ever go somewhere new. If I do go to a new place, I have to be traveling with someone who knows that place and can show me around. Otherwise, I am way stressed about it all.

  5. I’ve had that happen too…headed straight to a library shelf, certain to pluck off exactly what I’d intended to borrow…only to find that I’d perfectly absorbed the contents of another branch’s shelves. But it can lead to the most unexpectedly brilliant discoveries when you’re “forced” to borrow other books instead, as you’ve described!

  6. I’m usually a confident, adventurous traveler, but it took a few hard lessons to learn to be one!

    In 9th grade, my Spanish class teamed up with the French class and we went on a two-week school trip to France and Spain. We didn’t sleep for like, 24 hours maybe more…and of course our sense of time was all screwy when we first arrived in Paris, but it was the middle of the afternoon and our teacher insisted we stay up so that we would adjust to the time difference quicker. So she took us to a perfume factory, where I think someone fainted because the intense fumes + utter exhaustion = light headedness. And then a restaurant, where half of us actually fell asleep sitting up at the table. Then, she decided to give us 15 minutes to wander around this famous fountain/plaza before regrouping and finally taking us to wherever it was we were staying that night.

    Well. I went to the other side of this plaza with three or four of my friends, all of whom were in the Spanish portion with me (so none of us knew any french). Meanwhile, a very good friend with a bit of an anxiety issue started having a SERIOUS melt down due to stress and lack of sleep, and convinced my teacher to leave early. She left without a headcount, and my friends and I were stranded. (There were only about 15 of us on this trip total, so how she didn’t notice a full third of us gone is still a mystery).

    Anyhow, we didn’t know where we were supposed to be staying that night, we hadn’t yet been given our phone cards for calling our tour guide in the case of an emergency nor did we know his number, and we had only enough money on us for ONE of us to take a one-way trip on the subway. And it was getting dark. And there was an increasingly large group of men following us around and making suggestive comments. And we couldn’t find anyone who spoke English who would spare the time to help us. We were all getting scared and angry with each other and didn’t know what to do and started fighting and it got ugly.

    We learned later that the friend who’d had the panic attack continued to panic, even more severely, when she noticed we weren’t at the hotel. She told my teacher we were missing, and was told “they’ll find their way.” She yelled and cried until our teacher finally agreed, HOURS LATER IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, to come back to the plaza to look for us.

    On the way back to the hotel, she assured us that we “needn’t tell our parents about us wandering off”.


    more travel stories where that came from, but seeing as how this comment is already REEEALLLy long I’ll hold off on them for now.

    • My eyes were like saucers when I read this story. That really happened? That is terrible! That’s an awful story! I am curious about your other travel stories, so I will have to remember to write more posts about Travel. :p

      I’ve never been to Paris properly, but I flew through there on my way to England one time. Absolutely awful idea. On the trip back from England, the same trip back where I broke down in Atlanta, the flight from London to Paris was delayed, and I only had a 45-minute layover in Paris anyway. So I got to Paris, whose airport is, y’know, huge, with about ten minutes before my flight left. I explained my problem reasonably calmly and in more or less comprehensible French to one of the airport ladies; she took my ticket and inspected it and went “Oo-la-la!” and giggled helplessly. Then she showed it to all her friends, and they all giggled, and I was all, “Mon avion! Eek!” and they all laughed some more. I swear I was standing there for five minutes while the airport people had a good chuckle over how late I was and how much I was going to miss my stupid plane. Meanies.

      (I have since learned some really vile French curse words, which if I’d known at the time I would have said to them. :p)

  7. I have a strong tendency to think car culture is the root of all evil, which I try ineffectively to suppress since I know it is not a balanced view. But what you said about jobs in suburbs: exactly. Same thing for poor carless college students trying to get jobs, but at least (as long as you can scrape together enough that you can make tuition) the prospect of an easier time of it later on. Not so for the lifelong urban poor.

    I rented a miniscule crumbling victorian summer-shack with a cupboard under the stairs the owner told me not to open. Not locked, but I think it had something pushed in front of it. She was a horrible woman, and though I am usually good about this kind of thing, but she was *so* horrible, and kept money that wasn’t hers, I looked. It was just old stuff. I didn’t dig through it. Some of it was gay pride memorabilia. in. the. closet.

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