Happy Passover 2022

Tonight, my family celebrated our freedom with a Passover seder.

Every year at this time, Jews around the world thank God for being personally liberated from slavery. It’s a biblical story, but, according to Jewish teachings, that liberation still belongs to every one of us on an individual level, now, in this moment.

That’s the guidance offered to us by our religious tradition, and I deeply appreciate the reminder of the abundant blessings of my own daily life.

Without a doubt, in 2022, my family bowed our heads with specific thanks for the wisdom shown by my father-in-law way back in the 1970’s when he brought his wife, child, and mother-in-law out of bondage from the Soviet Union to the U.S.A.

He had no idea what to expect when he got there, but he trusted in the expansive nature of the big ideas in the “great works” of European literature that he’d read (illicitly, since they were illegal in Russia) to imply that something better existed outside the narrow intellectual constraints of 20th Century Soviet communism.

I daresay he’d say he was right to follow those instincts. I’m in total agreement.

Tonight, we prayed for those who live with less freedom than we are privileged to have. We thanked God for the exodus of DH, his parents, and his grandmother from the U.S.S.R., to the U.S.A., by way of a European refugee camp.

Parallels to today’s crisis in Ukraine are not lost on us. We bow our heads to those still suffering. We look at our beautiful children and acknowledge how easily they could have been born there instead of here; in servitude instead of free.

We are warm and safe and free to worship—or not—as we choose. What a wonder! What a privilege.

Table after meal with seder plate containing maror, vegetables, charoset, egg, etcGenerous sponsors in Europe and the U.S.A. helped bring my husband and his family forth from oppression to independence many years ago. The world must take similar steps to ease the way for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression today.

Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” My father-in-law said something similar, via his actions, to Brezhnev.

Now, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is saying the same to would-be Czar Putin, the killer of children, bomber of innocents. It behooves every lover of liberty, democracy, and personal freedom to support Ukraine in this effort.

Chag sameach! Happy Holiday!

Playground rhymes for our troubled times

Do you remember that little song from the playground game, “Ring around the Rosie” from your childhood?

Ring around the rosie,

A pocket full of posies.

Ashes, ashes:

We all fall down!

Now, I wonder if you learned– even as a child, like I did–that this nonsensical-sounding ditty dated back to the bubonic plague decimating Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

It turns out, the Black Death explanation is apocryphal and didn’t appear until the mid-20th century. Even so, the notion of kids taking notice when the world seems on its way to Hell with an oversized hand basket strikes me as accurate.

I haven’t got a COVID-19 rhyme composed for you today, though I’m now tempted to try my hand at one.Map of Mariupol, Ukraine generated by cell phone GPS app

I did, however, have a politically motivated stab at nasty name-calling in verse! come together in my mind over the past few days. While imperfect–and my apologies to the masterful teacher Michael Clay Thompson, whose MCT Langugage Arts curriculum I used with my home educated child in very recent years, so that I now have the vocabulary to describe how weak my doggerel truly is in form and meter–my not-quite-best self still prompts me to post it here.

I’d also like to ask if others can do better. Please, post your own rhyme in the comments, or tweet away!

I feel as if every child in the free world should have such poems on their lips these days. With luck, the wind will carry them across borders to those less fortunate youngsters growing up under dictators.

The literal future of human freedom lay presently with democratic nations around the world who must confront the warmongering by Russia’s “elected” leader and would-be-czar.

Upon seeing the news report of the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9th, 2022, I brought these words together.

Printed text of verse in historical typewriter font: Pathetic Putin, killer of babies. Can’t defeat soldiers so he bombs ladies

I debated posting something so mean-spirited. It goes against the very nature of this blog. Really Wonderful Things tries hard to be a bringer of light, and a force for good, human and wildly imperfect as its author is.

“Pathetic Putin…

What is Really Wonderful, however, is my right to comment on politics and politicians. God bless America, and hurrah for my freedom of speech! We are not perfect, yet I don’t hesitate to write these words or share them with the world. I am safe, though I express a controversial opinion, and in strident tones.

…killer of babies…

A miracle, frankly, if you know much of history.

How grateful I am that this is so… for me. How deeply I wish everyone shared in this good fortune.

…can’t defeat soldiers…

What I hope to accomplish by encouraging innocents to chant insults aimed at distant autocrats is the absolute, utter celebration of democracy and representation for the common individual.

…so he bombs pregnant ladies!”

Every school kid should know that such a system exists, God-willing, right on his or her doorstep. Every free person alive should be teaching those children the rights and responsibilities of an empowered electorate.

We the people of free nations owe every other human being, potential and living, our efforts toward sharing our ultimate luxury.

The people of Ukraine have made clear their disinterest in being re-shackled to their former Soviet masters. The bravery of those defending their homes should serve as a stern reminder for all who hear the news.

Representation is an inalienable right, but it is ultimately a privilege that must be constantly protected from jealous usurpers. The world will never lack for tyrants, in temperament if not in fact.

I stand with Ukraine.

Books by my bedside 2021/April

I’m a little shocked by how long it’s been since I last posted about what I’m reading. Considering the rather desperate way I escaped into fiction during the pandemic, I might’ve been more forthcoming in sharing what I read for that release.

Now, back to my boilerplate:

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga

Writing (Short Story as Literature)

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by Saunders, George

Fiction

Young Adult

Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Okorafor, Nnedi

The Real Boy by Ursu, Anne

African/Feminist

Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi

Mystery/Thriller

Billionaire Blend by Coyle, Cleo

A Deadly Influence by Omer, Mike

All the Devils are Here by Penny, Louise

Water Memory by Pyne, Daniel

Open House by Sise, Katie

After Alice Fell by Taylor Blakemore, Kim

Science Fiction

Shift by Howey, Hugh

Reading Notes:

Exploring the world via fiction in a year without travel

The young adult novel, Akata Witch (like its sequel, Akata Warrior), is set in Nigeria. Please see my footnote about the derogatory term in these titles if Nigerian languages are new to you as they were to me. As I have no wish to offend anyone, I will not repeat the word except within the context of the titles chosen by the works’ creator.

Like the author—Nnedi Okorafor—herself, the heroine, Sunny, is American born. Sunny is a teen living in Nigeria, an outsider due to her foreign birth, albinism, and then… all the usual stuff that sets apart the protagonist of a fantasy novel. This is not a cookie-cutter, Western fantasy! I found Okorafor’s created world fresh and fascinating, and the heroine and her friends richly detailed, complex, and very capable of keeping my middle-aged attention. My heart does tend to ache for the girl’s worried mother, however, as Sunny undertakes dangerous quests typical of the genre.

I enjoyed being immersed in the African setting of these titles. Missing my usual travels, this scratched my itch for adventure and “seeing” new places. The American-born teens in the story helped this reader make the transition to a better understanding of Nigerian culture from a perspective with which I’m more familiar.books I read April 2021 - Okorafor fantasy novels

Of course, the bulk of the story involves magical powers and the unseen world. Even if I made it to Nigeria, I doubt I’d encounter most of the creatures or powerful wizards Okorafor brings to life on her pages. As the pandemic has taught me, living through historically exciting events is not always easy or desirable.

Aside from an enjoyable young adult narrative, I appreciate Okorafor’s thoughtful approach to her craft. Regarding her success in a genre whose “great men” were often virulent racists who may well have shunned her, Okorafor wrote on her own blog:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that .…as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.”

I believe this contemplative attitude helps explain why she opted to use a word with heavy connotations in her titles. I use her original titles as opposed to the less racially-charged British ones in an effort to show respect to the author.Copy of softbound library copy of Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga

Also set in Africa but half a continent away, I recently dove into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s masterful Nervous Conditions. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-20th Century. I devoured the novel in just a couple of days, perhaps identifying so strongly with its protagonist, Tambudzai, because of her intelligence and drive to get an education against all obstacles.

Tambu reflects upon a new school with: “Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big, bright, walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself…in…books…”

I was a girl just like that.

Quote from page 199 about the wonderful library in a girl's school

Nervous Condition is the kind of book in which I highlight multiple passages. For the library’s sake, I do that these days by photographing myself pointing to the relevant spot on the page. Less typically for me, I even highlighted some of the author’s comments in the “book club” discussion section at the back of this novel.

Tambu’s story isn’t light or easy. Colonialism, racism, sexism, and poverty all conspire against her success, though she’s quite young when the story begins. She’s complex and complicated, and Dangarembga has drawn her beautifully. Even better, the entire novel is peopled by fully dimensioned, believable characters. Dangarembga writes with a deft hand.Quote highlighted from Nervous Conditions page 183

“Marriage. I had nothing against it in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to think about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could even call it my own.”

I finished the book quite eager to read its successor, 2006’s The Book of Not. It was unavailable at my local library, though the third volume, 2020’s This Mournable Body could be had. I couldn’t even find book two in our statewide searchable catalog for inter-library loans. Resigning myself to an Amazon purchase, I discovered that a new edition of The Book of Not is due to be released in May of this year. Used copies from 2006 are selling for about $50 each, which is more than I can bear to spend on a paperback. The vagaries of international publishing, perhaps?

I opted to purchase the Audible audiobook version of This Mournable Body—Dangarembga’s only English language audio release, so far as I can tell—because I wanted to directly support the author of a powerful novel that moved me so profoundly.

Also, no lie, it drove me crazy that I still don’t know how to pronounce many names from the story. Unlike European languages and concepts, I struggled to search out definitions for unfamiliar terms, photos of garments about which I was curious, or quick phonetic pronunciation guides. I’m hoping that the audiobook recording will offer me the chance to hear these names spoken by a more educated narrator.

I’ve heard people argue about a lack of rich cultural heritage outside of their narrow conception of the “civilized world;” it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see because your back is turned!

Segueing not very neatly from far away in distance to far away in time, I must comment on Hugh Howey’s sequel to Wool: Shift. They’re both part of the Silo Saga. These are really good books—if you can tolerate a dystopian future.

My librarian friend The Priestess recommended Wool to me during a weekend away together. I was complaining about how poorly most algorithms do in offering me literary recommendations. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone else, but Amazon and Good Reads do not get me at all. She’d heard good things about it, but not read it herself, I believe.

I enjoyed Wool. It was a fun read, I finished it… then I didn’t think about it again for several years. Somehow, during the pandemic, Shift came to my attention. I think, since Mr. Howey originally self-published via Amazon, that it may have been free to read with Kindle Unlimited. I was definitely hunting that source much more actively than usual in the early shutdown days when I lost weekly library access.

Here’s why I absoluely must mention Shift: I have never before read a sequel and been so much more impressed by it than I was by its precursor. If anything, I’m used to being disappointed by middling follow-ups to novels I loved. That sounds strange, because Wool was a good book. Shift struck me as an even better one, and much more profound.

Consider the Silo Saga if you enjoy Sci Fi and don’t mind reading about the end of the world in the middle of a pandemic disaster.

Myriad mysteries

The string of casual flings I carry on with light murder mysteries continues. Thankfully, our local library opened for pre-ordered, curbside lending after a month or two of darkness, but I have also relied more heavily on the monthly free titles for Amazon Prime members (most of which are mediocre, but they do pass the time) and digital psuedo-purchases, which I loathe on principle.Two Kindle ebook readers, one labeled kids, the other says Mom's

No, if I don’t have a copy of a book or song I can pass to my heirs when I die, I have not purchased it. I’ve rented a license to use my copy during my lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with the model, if it’s what people want, but calling these transactions a purchase strikes me as fraudulent! Stepping down from soapbox…

A Deadly Influence made a pretty fun read, but a single sentence late in the book stopped me cold, prompting me to check the author’s name and confirm that he must be a man. It was a description of an outfit that the protagonist put on to go out and meet a date… and it was so laughably bad, I guessed right that moment that a non-fashionable male had written its description.

The storyline there involves a professional police negotiator, Abby, the calm presence who talks down the guy on the ledge or the hostage holding one with a gun to someone’s head. She (the protagonist) was very believable, except for her dressing up scene, realistically, lightly flawed, yet still likeable. Peeking inside life in a modern cult or two also made this novel stand out from my crowd of similar whodunits. It’s one of the few Amazon freebies I’ve read where I will watch for sequels. I’d like to see Abby’s character develop, and A Deadly Influence ended on a bit of cliffhanger though one I admittedly saw coming, but I didn’t mind.

Better writing through considered consumption of literature

Finally, I can’t leave this post without some discussion of Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’m so in love with this book at the moment! Full disclosure: I’m only 4/7 done with it as it was due back to the library and had holds so I couldn’t renew.

George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse. The premise of the book is to explore seven classic works of Russian short fiction, then tease out lessons to improve our own writing from literary greats Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.

The stories are magnificent. So are Saunders’ essays!Section heading for Tolstoy's Master & Man (1895) from the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

Perhaps the author selected just those few stories which are truly special. More likely, I have failed to read enough of the Russian masters. Technically proficient? Yes. Moving, emotionally rich? Definitely. Yet, somehow, this book is also a great deal of fun. I wish Saunders were my teacher though I’ve already spent far more time in Syracuse than I ever wished to.

I picked this up in order to plan a literature unit for my home educated teen. I thought it would complement the Russian History we’re doing this year. Note to home schoolers: it really, really does! I planned to peruse it, make some notes, then set the child to work on Saunders’ readings and my assignments over the summer term. Instead, I fell into the book myself, only reluctantly returning it on time because I’d foolishly let it sit too long on our library shelf before starting in.

Consider pairing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with viewing the Great Courses video offering History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev taught by Mark Steinberg. Lesson 21: Peasant Life & Culture is particularly apropos, but everything from Lesson 8 (The Decembrist Rebellion) to 25 (War & Revolution) will enhance your appreciation for the context of those stories Saunders offers.

† IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be aware that the unfamiliar word—if you only speak English—in the title, Akata Witch, has derogatory connotations for some Africans and African Americans.

The first book was given a new title for publication in the UK and Nigeria for that reason (What Sunny Saw in the Flames.) My internet research was cursory, of course, since I know no African languages. In spite of many contradictory definitions across the web, my best understanding is that the word is Yoruba—or possibly originated from the Fanti tribe—and is literally defined as an animal (maybe cat or fox.) The emphasis is on an uncivilized creature living outside his/her/its appropriate milieu. I’m not qualified to explain the term beyond this attempt at literal translation.

I wanted to discuss this book, but I hesitated to blindly post a sensitive phrase without this acknowledgement. Read about the term’s slang usage on Urban Dictionary if you’d like to learn more.