Dear Jeanine Cummins,

What I read

Dear Jeanine Cummins,

It’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine working on a novel for five years and then *voila*–publicity tour cancelled–death threats–hateful reviews. (I guess if anything else, the blowback has spoken to the power of the written word … but I’m sure that’s little consolation and hardly how you thought this would turn out.)

Let me start out by saying that I raced through the first half of the book. You had me from the first page. I was riveted as Lydia and Luca raced to escape Los Jardineros. Held my breath as they hid in the missionary van and jumped onto La Bestia. The action was movie-like in its suspense; the characters just like me. Very John Grisham-ish, I thought.

And that was my first hint that something was not-quite-right. You see, Lydia seemed so … white. I get the whole we-are-all-the-same-on-the-inside thing, but Lydia’s story–a migrant’s story–was one about which I knew nothing. I wanted to see the world through her eyes, not my own. I wanted insight into the immigrant experience, but what I got was fiction that recycled features from the evening news. And this was probably my biggest disappointment: you wrote in tropes, cliche. Exciting ones, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted more.

I should probably mention I read nothing about the American Dirt controversy until after I finished the novel. My bookish friend Denice lent me her copy with an urgent, “I need to know what you think about this” and I didn’t want others to sway my opinion. Even the two of us spoke only briefly about the controversy.

And after reading several articles, I feel as though some of the criticism was well-founded. But even though the reviews might have some merit, I don’t think the entire burden should be laid at your feet. Flat Iron Books did you wrong–they were looking to make publishing waves and a whole lotta money and you got caught in the cultural cross-fire. Flat Iron heralded your book as literary fiction when in reality it was an exciting thriller, and you took most of the flack.

But, Jeanine, some of those reviewers were just. plain. nasty. I’m so sorry. Sadly, in our Trumpian universe people–even those who are woke–even those who have been on the receiving end of invective themselves–feel justified in name calling and taking broad swipes at those with whom they differ. Even *gasp* liberals and progressives. Whatever happened to respectful discourse?

Would I recommend American Dirt? Yes. With maybe a side note to read one of the articles below to put the novel into perspective. Was I sorry I took the time to read it? Not at all. As I said, it was an exciting thriller. It might even make a good movie.

But most importantly? It made me think. And that’s what compelling stories are all about.

What I lived

Following the American Dirt threads through the interwebs and reading link after link was fascinating. My takeaway? Listen. Just listen when you know little about a culture or experience that is not your own. Don’t stand on your liberal (or conservative!) soapbox and preach. Just. shut. up.

Here are some threads for you to follow, Dear Reader . Listen carefully.

Washington Post: Publisher cancels ‘American Dirt’ book tour: ‘Serious mistakes’ and ‘concerns about safety’ This article has a video excerpt of Cummins speaking at Politics and Prose Bookstore which is worth watching; just listening to the strain in her voice, it’s easy to recognize the toll this has taken on the author.

AP: Author tour for controversial ‘American Dirt’ is canceled Oprah chose the novel for her book club read and has faced some backlash from the Latinx community; concise read.

Slate: Will the American Dirt Fiasco Change American Publishing? Great discussion of how publishers might avoid a debacle like this in the future.

Texas Monthly: The Real Problem With ‘American Dirt’ Regional perspective with tons of links for additional reading, including this link to titles about the migrant experience written by Latinx.

1A (NPR): What The Controversy Over ‘American Dirt’ Tells Us About Publishing And Authorship A panel discussion focusing on “who has the right to tell what stories?” One quibble–one of the panelists scoffed at the fact that Cummins had Lydia ride La Bestia when a middle class woman in Mexico would have gone to the airport and taken the first flight to Canada. Except that Lydia did think of that and didn’t want her name showing up on the flight manifest. That made me wonder just how closely some of the critics read the novel.

4/20

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shootings on April 20, 1999.

I attended the March For Our Lives last March in Grand Rapids

Not even a year later, a teacher across the hall from me intercepted a note. In the note, one student told another he wanted to napalm three teachers on 4/20 and watch them burn. I was one of the teachers named. Now I’m not naive. Kids have always talked smack about teachers–especially when grades are in play or they feel some injustice has been done to them. But this note was passed only ten months after Columbine. Teachers and students everywhere felt–quite literally–in the cross hairs.

Teach your children well

In response to Columbine, Michigan legislators amended school code to include what was informally called a snap suspension. The new legislation stated that teachers could impose a one-day student suspension if they felt threatened. And so the three of us teachers named in the note met with the assistant principal after school, gave him a photocopy of the note, and asked that the one-day snap suspension be carried out. It was all we wanted, really: to send a message that language such as this was no longer acceptable. Because while the student’s sentiment was scary enough, we were living in a new era: one where violent rhetoric–even what might once have been considered a normal teenage rant–could not longer be tolerated in school.

A child shall lead them …

What followed was a mess of grand proportions. After meeting with the parents and students, the principal decided a written apology was sufficient. (These were good kids, after all; it was all in the heat of the moment.) We teachers refused the apology. Administration maintained it was not a “real” threat. Union lawyers became involved. The gossip mill in our small community turned fast and furiously. Public comments at a school board meeting were largely in favor of the teachers, as were the letters to the editor in the local paper. Lawyers proposed we seek a personal protection order. The superintendent sent the teachers home until things settled. A judge dismissed the petition.

The teachers involved felt unsupported by administration; the administration felt attacked.

The district did adopt a procedure requiring that if and when similar situations occurred students be given a risk-assessment by an outside agency. And the risk assessment has been used in the last twenty years. Several years after my own incident, a student posted inappropriately about a teacher on social media, and later still there was an incident of student stalking. Other than that, what good came of my experience?

Since Columbine there have been at least ten school shootings. Several hundred staff and students have been injured or killed. (I’d suggest not looking at school shooting memes on the internet because it is clear that the attitude towards school violence is irreverent and dismissive, at best.) Set aside the fact that my own incident didn’t involve the horror of gun violence, it was dreadful nonetheless.

We three teachers went on to have successful careers. One of us is still a teacher in the prime of her career. Another is an education professor at an Ivy League university. I am retired. But I find myself thinking about those students quite often. They are now in their mid-thirties, with families, I’m sure, and probably children of their own. I assume they felt as swept up by the moment as we teachers did; I’m guessing they also felt victimized by the situation.

But how could those students–now adults–not regret writing those words? I used to think if they were truly sorry, they would some day offer an explanation–if not an apology–to make amends. But after twenty years I doubt that will happen.

Now I wonder if they think about that cold winter day in January at all.

I do.

The Monk of Mokha: review

The Monk of Mokha
Dave Eggers
Vintage (2019)

I marvel at my own coffee evolution. Nearly forty years ago as a brand new bride I started with a percolator–Corning Ware in the ever-popular butterfly gold–and made one pot each week on Saturday morning. Several years later I moved up to a Mr. Coffee and what followed were any number of other drip coffeemakers. The coffee itself? Folgers or Maxwell House. And then I turned a snob–french press, coffee beans bought bulk, ground right before steeping.

Today? I wake up, stick a pod into a single-brew system … and fuss because the wait is so long for my morning cup ‘o joe.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemini-American living in San Francisco, didn’t even drink coffee when he set out to become a coffee importer. His goal? To empower Yemeni coffee growers and bring coffee back to its origin story. Coffee, it seems, was first cultivated in Yemen. Not Ethiopia. Not Sumatra. Not even Costa Rico or Columbia. The Dutch stole a few plants in the 17th century, cultivated it in Java, and, subsequently, Europe spent a couple hundred years fighting over control of coffee production.

Mokhtar was out to return Yemen to its rightful place in coffee history.

His lofty goal must have seemed like a long shot to many. Mokhtar was a bit of a smart ass. A college drop out. His last job before becoming an entrepreneur? Doorman. But once he learned the story of coffee, Mokhtar threw himself headlong into making his dream a reality. He interned at Blue Bottle coffee. He insinuated himself into a specialty coffee conference. Wheedled and cajoled friends and relatives in the Yemeni community to back his venture.

And then he took off for Yemen.

Now even if you don’t know much about current events, you’ve surely heard of Yemen. Something about a civil war? The Houthis. Saudi bombings. Famine. Refugee camps. And there was Mokhtar Alkhanshali right in the thick of things.

He traveled the country with armed escorts. Was thrown in jail and detained multiple times. Lived through sniper fire and gun fights and bombing raids. All the while, pursuing his dream to bring Yemeni coffee–he had eighteen thousand kilograms waiting in a warehouse–to the rest of the world. Mukhtar was Teflon-coated. Nothing stuck. He could fast talk himself out of any situation.

In fact, at times his journey seemed fantastical. Beyond belief. Could a young man (he was only twenty-five at the time) really escape unscathed so many times? In the middle of a war zone?! I read much of the book with my mouth open in awe or was it maybe a hint of disbelief? Writer Dave Eggers accompanied Mokhtar to Yemen, visited the sites he talked about, and verified his experiences. (Here they talk about the book in this PBS interview in 2018.)

Mokhtar eventually makes it back to the U.S. via Djibouti. He gets that shipment of coffee. He roasts and markets the coffee. He makes his parents proud. It’s the American Dream, right?

Mokhtar’s coffee–marketed under the brand Port of Mokha–sells for $16 a cup, brewed. You read that right. Per cup. Even if I get fancy pants coffee pods, they go for less than a buck each. This is the fine wine of coffee, dear reader, and a far cry from my percolator-Mr. Coffee-or even French press days.

But I’m tempted to buy a cup should I ever have the opportunity.


Is it all too good to be true? I just read about a scandal related to Port of Mokha coffee and Mokhtar Alkhanshali. I don’t begin to know the ins and outs of the legal business dealings, but I do know the words “racketeering” and “embezzlement” aren’t good. You can read about the lawsuits Mokhtar is involved with here and here.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: review

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow

Be honest.

photo credit@National Geographic

How much do you really know about Afghanistan? That it’s the site of one of the United States’ longest foreign wars. That it was the seat of Osama bin Laden and el Qaeda. Maybe you read The Kite Runner, so you have at least a better-than-average understanding of what life in Afghanistan might be like. And everyone remembers the Girl With the Green Eyes on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. But if you’re like me, I’m guessing that’s the extent of it, right?

Nadia Hashimi’s novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of Rahima, one of four sisters in a poor family at the turn of the 21st century. Her Pader-jan is off fighting with the war lord; the Taliban rules the streets. And without a brother to escort the girls to school and the marketplace, they are virtually prisoners in their own home. (What makes matters even worse is that Pader-jan is an opium addict who is–let’s just say–less than helpful when he is home.) Rahima’s Mader-jan suggests that the nine-year-old become bacha posh, a custom in which a young girl takes the role of a male child. After all, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother was a bacha posh, too, so there is family history to consider. So the girl’s hair is cut short. She wears pants. Barters with the shopkeepers. But even better? As Rahim, she plays soccer, walks freely down the street, looks neighbors in the eye, and gets out of any woman’s work around the house. A stranger on the street would think Rahima really was a boy.

Pearl that broke its shellHashimi alternates between Rahim’s story and Shekiba, her great-great grandmother–and reveals the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in Afghanistan over one hundred years. We experience life in a family compound with farmers who barely eke out a living. We shrink at the blows overbearing mothers-in-law rain on young wives. We live in a war lord’s harem. We feel what it’s like to be number three wife and backhanded by an angry husband for some insignificant infraction.

Those stories laid a groundwork for understanding modern day Afghanistan, at least through the eyes of a the women. So readers learn how powerful husbands enter a wife’s name in the running for a seat Parliament because western powers had dictated that a certain number of ministers be women. How those female ministers had ‘minders’ who signaled to them how to vote. How even in 2007 women were not to watch television or use a computer. And how bearing children is still a woman’s greatest worth.

In every society, no matter how repressive, there are always women who slip through the gender-role cracks. In The Pearl that character is Khala Shaima , Rahima’s elderly spinster aunt who is old enough (and she herself would probably say ugly enough) to say anything to anyone and go where she wants when she wants to. Khala Shaima is always there to fight for Rahima and push her to think beyond the confines of her life–to some day find a way to a better life.

But exactly how that pearl breaks its shell is yours to discover.

N is for The New Yorker (A-Z Blogging Challenge)

Today is day 14 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theThe New Yorker
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: The New Yorker


New Yorker
MyEyeSees@Flickr.com

 I think my first New Yorker subscription was over twenty-five years ago–it’s now a budgeted item, costly subscription notwithstanding. I’ve rarely been disappointed in an issue and love the breadth and depth of the writing.

I’ve read about Saddam Hussein’s death and Taylor Swift. About a dentist who faked his running records and the people who try to amass world records for Guinness. I learned about hand transplants and hoarders. About murderers and drug dealers. I read an article by the Newtown shooter’s father about his son. This week’s issue? A voyeur who recorded his observations over decades and a Filipino nanny.

And the covers. Oh my goodness the cover art. I saved this one because it said so much about how our first Black president was perceived.

In my AP class, I use some articles as classroom reading and for one marking period students choose an article each week from the several years I have saved. At first they complain the articles are too long. Then they get hooked–and often confused by the cartoons. (“I don’t get the ‘pictures’? They don’t go with the story …”) Dancers read reviews of ballets and drama kids read play reviews. There is a profile on Taylor Swift and one on John Green. Concussions in high school football. Hopefully, at least a few of the kids will remember the magazine fondly–and someday subscribe themselves.