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On reading Sacred Hunger (by Barry Unsworth) (Part 2)

Posted in Comment with tags on April 2, 2013 by cgeary

The historical theme of this book was slavery and the ways in which power of the wealthy and privileged is institutionalized in the social fabric of our lives, but it is also very impressive how Unsworth deals with the intrapsychic and the interpersonal aspects of our lives that are pervasive across time and geography. The largest arc of the story focuses on the power of intense emotion felt in one act that propels actions of one of the characters across a lifetime. In this case the emotion was humiliation and I think was very particular to how men relate to each other, though I can think of other seemingly small actions in the lives of women that could have similarly longlasting effects. I don’t want to say more for those who might want to read the book. I mention it here though just to say that part of the joy of reading the book was that it was engaging at many different levels and I am awed by novelists who can do this well. 

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On reading Sacred Hunger (by Barry Unsworth) (Part 1)

Posted in Comment with tags on April 2, 2013 by cgeary

This is a very compelling, very beautifully written novel. The story was about the European slave trade to the Americas in the 1700’s, but for me, it very quickly took me on a personal journey into moral ambiguity. How could slavery occupy any gray area? I started out the book thinking, “Everyone blames America, but really it was the Europeans who started this and profited as much from it.” I was not removing blame from the Americans who profited but somehow (sadly), it made me feel a little less guilty as an American, but only for a little while. The book does an excellent job of situating the slavery into a seemingly rational way of life that helps us understand how evil is sustained. We are introduced to amiable characters who are part of the slave trade who do not seem to be monsters; there are many ways in which we relate to them, understand them. They are people trying to make a living, who love their families, who want them to prosper. This is just one of many ways they seek to grow their wealth. It seems reasonable to them. For them it is just part of the world of trade, and they believe it is trade from Africa to Jamaica back to England that propels progress (and innovation?) and improves the lives of everyone. It is easy to get sucked into the drama of their day-to-day lives and forget the horror of how they make their living. Even the most enlightened characters, at least initially, have no moral outrage against slavery. And it is not just Africans whose freedom is compromised, nor is it only the English who enslave Africans. A number of the crew were pressed into service and it was African “middle men” who captured men and women and sell them to the ship’s captain, taking a cut along the way and making things better for themselves and their families.

So, I had this rude awakening that I can’t feel better about myself because I can just blame the English in the 18th century for these crimes against humanity. It is everyone that lets this happen. Then and now, injustice is part of a system that is difficult to disentangle. Or at least that is what the people who are profiting from it want you to believe. That it is too complicated and that there will be unintended consequences…that someone else will get hurt along the way…that you just don’t understand. “It’s not that easy,” is what my father used to say when I would complain about sexism or racism or the Vietnam War. But now I believe that is all subterfuge. There has to be a way to cut through what is wrong to get through what is right.

Slavery is still happening around the world, just not as blatantly, not openly supported by legitimate governments, but undoubtedly happening with many governments turning a blind eye. And thinking about slavery made me think of every other morally reprehensible act that enables us to live in relative comfort and luxury while it causes pain to or degrades other human beings. Start anywhere…sweat shops…mining…the toxicity from manufacturing that is in our soil and water and bodies..…the tragedy of drug addiction while so much money lines the pockets of criminals and politicians and is laundered through ‘legitimate’ businesses. Think of the arms trade all around the world and think of the guns that are bought and sold and stockpiled in the United States and politicians too gutless or evil to take a stand against laws giving people the right to own assault weapons. And how pharmaceutical companies use the bodies of people in developing countries to test new drugs. Undoubtedly some benefit could accrue to these people, but not in proportion to the benefit realized from drug companies. We do not push ourselves hard enough to see the interconnectedness of everything or to figure out how to leave the faintest mark on the world. It is all complicated, and sometimes there seems to only be a choice between several evils, but the consideration of the effects of what we do on others and the intention to create as few negative consequences as possible will create the possibility of it while looking the other way will not.

The genius of this book, for me, was that the story held up a mirror to my own ability to ignore evil in everyday life and to acknowledge that the bad stuff it not “out there” but everywhere where we do not acknowledge it and try to stop it.

Coming home and a book review (eating animals)

Posted in Comment, Travel on March 3, 2010 by cgeary

The trip home

The trip home was a little less easy than the trip out there, but then it is amazing to me that I can leave Zambia and travel all the way back to North Carolina in the short time it takes…even though it was a bit longer than planned…but just a matter of hours, not days.

Going to Jo’berg was fine. I had a six hour layover in Jo’berg, but I managed it fine. When I got on the plane there, however, I found out that my aisle seat was in the back of my section, meaning that I couldn’t lean my seat back really at all. Plus I was next to two people who were not used to flying…older…and uncharitably I winced thinking that might affect my flight home as well. Then the pilot got on and said that because of the headwinds we were going to get to Atlanta a half hour behind schedule. I knew at that moment that my already short connection in Atlanta was likely unworkable, given the need to go through immigration and get my suitcase off the belt and then recheck it. So I was disappointed but figured there was no reason to stress about it, and I didn’t really. The thing about not being able to lean back for 16 hours is that as I tried to sleep I slumped down in my seat a bit and ended up leaning on the end of my spine — which did hurt a bit towards the end — it seems not to have had long term effects. Of course because I cannot put my feet up, my ankles remain swollen for a few days. I guess that is all I’m going to say about flying coach. My seat mates did keep the reading light on for a few hours during the middle of sleeping time and the guy next to me did leave into my seat space and if he had been an American I would have asked him to move, but I was intimidated because of the cultural differences and was just annoyed. Engaging would have been better and we finally did towards the end of trip. The couple was from Zimbabwe and had been to the States last year for 6 months…not sure why except that I think it had to do with his being a Seventh Day Adventist (he was reading a large print bible in English). He asked me about the book I was reading, Eating Animals, and asked if that included pork. When he told me he was from Zimbabwe he mentioned that there is a lot of evil in the world, and I could see where he was coming from and agreed. Though that is not something I personally dwell on.

True to his word, the pilot was right and we got in late to Atlanta. If my bag had gotten to me earlier I could have made  my 8:25 flight and the rest of the story would have been different. I ran to my gate and when I got there at 8:20 the door was closed. I got onto a 9:50 flight which seemed fine…plus I knew my bag would get there too. But it started snowing…the snow caused a problem with our crew…they had to call a new one…one pilot was late…that put us behind the queue for de-icing (in Atlanta in March!) and we left about three hours behind schedule. To their credit, they went ahead and loaded us up and to my delight, I got upgraded to 1st class. So, though I was tired…very tired…I was sitting in a very comfortable chair and had a flight attendant waiting on me. The guys in suits were having fits…on their cell phones, rearranging meetings, canceling meetings, making executive decisions and wildly exaggerating our delay. I really really did want to be home, but I knew we were going to get off the ground eventually and it was much better than sitting at the gate. I got a lot of reading done…almost finished my book. My bag somehow got to RDU before I did…I guess on another airline. Traveling mercies.

Eating animals

So, I probably will stop eating meat after reading this book. I definitely will not eat any meat that I know didn’t come from a family farm. I can (and do) actually buy meat at the local farmers market from family farms, but there are still ethical questions to wrestle with beyond eating local and supporting local, small farms. There is the issue of eating animals.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s book about factory farming of animals is set within his own family stories and how he has come to the decision to be a vegetarian. His discussion is nuanced and not at all knee-jerk. He focuses primarily on the welfare of animals — mostly the lack of it — but makes the other points about why meat coming from factory farms is bad for the environment, for health (public and personal) and for our souls because of what it does to people who work in them as well as the cruelty to animals. I’m not sure how any ominvore could read this book and not feel moved to change something in the way they eat and socialize within the context of food. JSF provides multiple points of view — letting actors on various sides of the issue speak for themselves. No one or perhaps only one person from the factory farm side would speak. It is mindboggling that this much cruelty to animals and humans goes on — unchecked — in the world. A lot of bad karma to burn up. It is sad and scary.

I was a vegetarian for a  number of years, primarily because of nutrition concerns. Then I had some gastrointestinal issues — probably from years of travel eating stress and parasites — which I tried to treat in numerous ways — but the thing that finally made a difference was the “blood type diet” which seems extreme in some ways but did work for me. I am an O+ which means I should eat meat but not wheat or dairy. Giving up wheat was hardest. Dairy — at least from cows — was not so hard. There is soy milk and I can eat goat cheese. But I do really enjoy eating beef..and my perfect dinner was steak, a salad and a glass of red wine. I don’t think I can do that any more. I can stay on the blood type diet without eating meat…there are plenty of other foods that still work for me. As JSF points out there is a lot at stake in terms of our socialization that revolves around food, so it is not just a dietary choice. It affects relationships with people and how you talk about your ethical choices and what you are willing to stand up for.

Food has always been complicated within my family. My mother did not have enough to eat in the depression. She was a home ec teacher for awhile but when she got married it was her job to feed me and she did, a lot, and there are all sorts of issues I have about eating…many I am beyond, but weight has always been an issue in my life and controlling it has taken way more energy than it should. The obesity epidemic in the US now seems emblematic of our complicated (dysfunctional) relationship with food.

So while I was reading the book I told my husband it was likely I wasn’t going to eat meat any more. We have been moving towards this for awhile…changing our diets in other ways…mostly towards local food and meat without antibiotics and hormones…but this is a further step…we’ll continue the conversation. I was glad for the chance to read this book. Jonathan Safran Foer continues to be illuminating and he is willing to take a moral stand.