Image of covers

Reading Notes: Weedeater by Robert Gipe

Earlier this year, I posted some thoughts on Trampoline, the first in a related set of books by Robert Gipe. I recently finished the second book Weedeater, and I’d like to share a few thoughts again. This won’t be a review or plot summary, so if you want to know more about the book, check out the publisher’s site: https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Weedeater

Dawn, the narrator of the first novel, takes turn narrating this time with a new character nicknamed Weedeater. I was glad at first to pick up Dawn’s story again, but that started to be a reason for me to postpone finishing this book. Though Trampoline by no means paints an optimistic portrait of the hardships faced in this Kentucky community, there were at least some flickers of hope that Dawn would find a path forward. Those flickers were extinguished in this novel, some quickly, some slowly. There was still a thread of humor and an appreciative eye for the land and the people that makes these books well worth the time, but I had to let go of some of my unrealistic expectations in order to finish reading.

The character of Weedeater was a gift, though. I am not sure I know how to describe him well. He is in some ways pathetic, bearing lasting physical and emotional wounds, in some ways comical, at least due to some of the situations he lands himself in and the reactions he discloses to the reader. He’s also lovable and appealing, even if he could be seen as the type who blends into the shadows of everyday life. I especially like how honest he is in his assessment of others and himself. He seems to me both broken and wholly innocent.

By the end of this second book, I feel so protective of these people, ravaged by addictions to coal and OxyContin, and it occurs to me these industries are what fund Senators Paul and McConnell, two politicians who work so very hard to do nothing for the people they are supposed to represent.

There are many zigs and zags in this book, major and minor events that echo the lack of control over their lives many of the characters experience. The scene that stands out the most for me is when Weedeater spends a day working in the coal mine, and Gipe helps us peek at a past and present almost unimaginable, one almost unbearable to experience.

As I neared the end of the book, it occurred to me that many parts could just as easily work as a poem. That may give you the wrong impression. Some novels are full of heavy prose, and that’s not the way this feels. It has its pragmatic moments, and a gritty humor balanced with a relentless sense of loss. But it was moving to hear the poetry singing underneath the story.

Font of wisdom

Today I want to kvetch a bit about fonts. You see, I am super partial to serif fonts. To be honest, I love all fonts, even the ones that make me shudder at the thought of actually using them in anything someone else would have to read (I’m looking at you, Western font). But my favorites have serifs.

So a few years ago when someone I respected told me that we should only use sans serif fonts because they are easier for people with dyslexia to read, I bristled, and of course, felt a bit guilty about the bristle. I mean, I am on board with accessibility. But also I was trained years ago as a reading specialist, and there was no talk of fonts back then (plus there were questions about dyslexia as a specific diagnosis versus the more appropriate and all-encompassing phrase ‘reading disability,’ for which direct support in word knowledge, fluency, and comprehension matter more than worrying about fonts, especially once the reader has advanced past primary reading levels, which was true for the college-age audience we were discussing). I made a few doubtful sounds, and the person told me I was out of touch with the latest research, which was likely true, but I wasn’t 100% clear that my colleague’s sources were grounded in reading research, so I continue to prefer serif fonts but am open to using sans serif sometimes just in case he was right.

Fonts came to mind again recently after listening to a podcast where one of the speakers was an agent complaining about writers pitching using Courier font. She suggested that the default Arial was much better.

I had to take a few breaths because I really resent the way my Pages app tries to force me to use Arial on anything because it feels like such a lazy font to me, skipping serifs and breakfast as far as I can tell. I even created a special template called 14 point Times New Roman for when I refuse to even look at Arial. And don’t get me started on WTF is going on when I copy and paste text into a Google email?? Or make edits to the email before sending? These emails sometimes show up with strange variations in font type and size, and I feel as if I was walking around with my underwear showing if my email gets sent in that mixed font state.

While I would never send Courier to anyone (except maybe back in the day when I submitted a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine and she wanted it in Courier— she of course rejected the story, but I loved having the rejection letter signed by her), I have an affection for it because it heralds for me old school typewriter writing (though not as well as the American typewriter font, which is the one I use in my online journal :)). For me, Courier evokes writers like Stephen King sending out zillions of stories to publications that no longer exist today.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I decided to take a peek at recent research on fonts. I found some imprecise information online, including the fact that the British Dyslexia Society recommends sans serif font, but sources tell me it is unclear why they took this stance.

I then came upon an article in the International Journal of Psychology (citation below) that looked specifically at the impact of serif versus sans serif fonts when college students were asked to evaluate research articles. Now granted, this study is limited in scope, but it included some findings that resonated for me. First, their review of the literature was helpful. It showed what I (who just recently upped my eyeglasses prescription) would agree—font size affects readability and even reactions to what you read. Also, letter recognition is a base skill, acquired well before word recognition and likely less of a concern for intermediate and advanced readers.

The review of the research and this study found that sans serif fonts support faster reading speeds. On the other hand, for smaller font sizes, serifs were helpful because they cause the letters to be spaced out more, making it easier to read.

The study also yielded this result: serif fonts may have slowed the readers down a bit, but the readers found serif font texts easier to understand, and the serifs font increased the readers’ interest and appreciation for the texts.

Do I feel vindicated? A little. Should I? Probably not. It’s just one study. But it did strike me that when I pick up a book to read, it’s almost always in a serif font. When I read a book or article with a sans serif font, it often feels less professional to me. So there seems to be some kind of cultural vibe at work here, and one that may say more about my age or for the academic audience, than a strictly cognitive response.

Still, go team Times New Roman, American Typewriter, and Didot. And I still love you Helvetica Neue, Marker Felt, and Noteworthy.

Article discussed:

Kaspar, K., Wehlitz, T., von Knobelsdorff, S., Wulf, T., & von Saldern, M. A. O. (2015). A matter of font type: The effect of serifs on the evaluation of scientific abstracts. International Journal of Psychology, 50(5), 372–378.

Postscript: It may be time for me to change my blog so I use serifs again :).

snapshot of book cover

Reading Notes on Robert Gipe’s Trampoline

I’ve been finding time, or making time, to read more often, and my best friend gifted me with three books by Robert Gipe, set in a coal-mining mountain region somewhere in eastern Kentucky. By a crow’s flight, it’s likely not that far from where I live in western North Carolina. The first novel is Trampoline, narrated by fifteen-year-old Jewell, who describes herself as a “freak, soft and four-eyed, with black fingernail polish, a dead daddy, a drunk momma, a crackhead brother, outlaw uncles, and divorced grandparents who made trouble for normal people every time they come off the ridge” (p. 70). As I read, I kept noticing how the setting and characters felt both familiar and unknowable to me. His portrait of individuals ravaged by poverty and addiction is neither unforgiving nor forgiving. I came away with so much sympathy for people locked into roles in which they become a danger to others, themselves, and the land they love.

Reading this book makes me wonder if it is ever possible to portray the truth of any person’s life, especially one in a position of such vulnerability or powerlessness. But the glimpses of what could be true within this portrait makes me wonder about the lives of people I have sat beside in waiting rooms or passed in the grocery store, the many glimpses of people living in these mountains that I do not know, that I try to but sometimes cannot really see.

I especially savored Gipe’s many metaphors and similes. The narrator/protagonist describes the board members at a state hearing “like prizes at a carnival game, eyes wide and blank, stuffed pink monkeys, green hippopotamuses piled too close together” (p. 12). Eyes often get an extra dose of language, such as, “‘How old are you, Dawn?’ The room went quiet when Decent asked. Her eyes were two humming outboard motors pushing a boat across summer waters. I water-skied behind her outboard motor eyes, rope tight pulling me across a rough glass like under a paste-gray sky” (p. 99). Black and white sketches further add to the impact of this illustrated novel.

My favorite moment captures the feel of this book. Dawn jumps off a small cliff to “practice kill” herself, only to land on a drunken aunt. The family that pushes her to despair is also there to break her fall.

To be clear, it is a moment both sad and funny, and I had to pace myself reading this novel because I could never predict when the story would make me laugh or cry.

1619 Project: Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s essay is titled “The sugar that saturates the American diet has a barbaric history as the ‘white gold’ that fueled slavery.”

As always, my goal is to highlight these articles rather than summarize, assuming that you will read the original works.

This line in particular stood out for me:

In Europe at that time, refined sugar was a luxury product, the backbreaking toil and dangerous labor required in its manufacture an insuperable barrier to production in anything approaching bulk. It seems reasonable to imagine that it might have remained so if it weren’t for the establishment of an enormous market in enslaved laborers who had no way to opt out of the treacherous work.
(Muhammad)

I especially liked the framing of this article in which he reminds the reader of how harmful sugar is to our health, as well as its ubiquity.

I am glad I am not trying to summarize because I could not do justice to this article, which explores the brutality and hardship experienced first by the enslaved people and then after enslavement ended, including ongoing efforts to sabotage Black-owned farms.

It is especially striking that the same prison mentioned by Bryan Stevenson is mentioned here: Angola. Which means that prisoners are forced not only to pick cotton but also sugar, one of the most painful crops to tend, or be forced into the “hole” if they don’t do the job well –which also will affect their chances at earning parole.

I am picturing now the sugar bowl that sits on my kitchen counter. I have been trying to use less sugar for health reasons. But how much worse to consider what I might be stirring into my tea or coffee, the product of such horrors, past and present.

Note: I found time recently to listen to an episode of Pod Save the People, and discovered they discussed this very article, so you might want to check it out, too:

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/pod-save-the-people/id1230148653?i=1000450075992

1619 Project: Kruse

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the essays in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.

Princeton University professor Kevin Kruse, who I know as That-History-Guy-on-Twitter, wrote an essay titled: “What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot”

A quote that resonated for me comes from the closing:

In the end, Atlanta’s traffic is at a standstill because its attitude about transit is at a standstill, too. Fifty years after its Interstates were set down with an eye to segregation and its rapid-transit system was stunted by white flight, the city is still stalled in the past. (Kruse)

I appreciate how these articles delineate examples of systematic discrimination. The earliest versions of most of our governmental assistance programs, as Kruse and other writers point out, were deliberately designed to exclude people of color.

This article reminded me of the three months I lived in Atlanta not long after I graduated from college. I remember hearing back then how Gwinnett County had voted against expanding the transit service for racist reasons, and I have had a grudge against that county ever since. It sounds as if little has changed. Apparently, preserving systems of discrimination against the poor and people of color is more important than saving the damn planet, which raises the question, as it always does: How foolish are these people?

The answer then and now: Very.

1619 Project: Morris

I am the type to read the book before I see the movie, and I tried to do something similar with the podcasts for the 1619 series, which both encompass and differ from the essays they address.

But I accidentally hit play on the third podcast on “The Birth of American Music” before reading Wesley Morris’s article, titled “For centuries, black music, forged in bondage, has been the sound of complete artistic freedom. No wonder everybody is always stealing it.”

Here’s the podcast link:
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/podcasts/1619-black-american-music-appropriation.html

Once I started listening, I couldn’t stop, especially because the podcast includes excerpts from some of the music he references.

It’s not a lighter topic since it traces the pain and indignities from which arose what Morris calls black American music. But there are some light moments in the podcast, and I especially appreciated Morris as narrator, the emotion, the irony, even moments of amusement that he conveys.

In light of that lightness (hmmm), I will mention that as I listened to it, and this is all me, I kept wondering, what is Yawk music? I am very out of it when it comes to music, which also means that I absolutely recognized all of the so-called Yawk songs. Anyway, hopefully you’ll listen to the podcast AND read his article so that you’ll get why I’m laughing at myself.

The experience of listening to the podcast is very different from that of the article even though both contain similar information. So it is well worth engaging with both. And I am glad it is my policy not to summarize these articles because I could not do this one justice.

There were some searing lines in Morris’ essay that I dare not quote because they don’t work out of context. But I also liked this one:

What we’ve been dealing with ever since is more than a catchall word like “appropriation” can approximate. The truth is more bounteous and more spiritual than that, more confused. That confusion is the DNA of the American sound. (Morris)

And although I really don’t want to steal the thunder of the podcast, I have to quote part of his closing lines. I suspect that this line, plus that one from Hannah-Jones’ essay, will be one I will return to again and again:

What you respond to in black music is an ultimate expression of belief in that freedom, the belief that the struggle is worth it, that the pain begets joy, and that that joy you’re experiencing is not only contagious, it’s necessary and urgent and irresistible. (Morris on podcast)

Wow.

 

1619 Project: Poems and Stories

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Typically I rely on the titles as a kind of summary for the essays, and I pull out a quote or two that resonated with me. That won’t work for today’s readings, which were poems and stories by 16 writers… 16 rockstar writers, I might add.

On the upside, when I posted the link here, it gave me a snapshot below, so you can see how the Times wishes to describe this section, plus their image (given the gravity of this topic, I have mostly avoided including any images in my blog posts about this project).

I am hesitant to quote specific lines, first because the words deserve to be read and absorbed in context as an artistic whole. And of course, second because my goal is not to step on their work, but support it.

So instead, I want to provide a full list of the authors of these poems and stories, which could serve as a kind of TBR for me in the future:

Clint Smith

Yusef Komunyakaa

Eve L. Ewing

Reginald Dwayne Betts

Barry Jenkins

Jesmyn Ward

Tyehimba Jess

Darryl Pinckney

ZZ Packer

Yaa Gyasi

Jacqueline Woodson

Rita Dove

Camille T Dungy

Joshua Bennett

Lynn Nottage

Kiese Laymon

Just surveying this list makes my eyes pop out, and I think everyone should drop whatever they are doing to read this special series, or at least this collection of poetry and prose. It’s almost odd to me that this is all published in a multimedia form online, which somehow feels so temporary to me, when this is work that should be preserved. But perhaps that reveals my age. I have to remind myself that print books don’t necessarily last longer than digital publications.

The selections walk through many key moments of history, often touching the wounds of tragedies and making visible the way these moments connect to events today. Not all respond to tragic events, such as one on hip-hop music or one of my favorites (okay, they are all my favorite) on the Black Panthers. Many pay homage to a painful mix of hard-won victories and unimaginable losses (which speaks to the bravery of these writers to attempt to imagine and depict them).

My advice: read them!

 

1619 Project: Bouie

I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the work of the 1619 Project.

Today I read the work by Jamelle Bouie, titled “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.” You can read it in full at this link:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/republicans-racism-african-americans.html

Again, I hope you will look to the title to give you a sense of what the article is about.

This article covered more recent political history than past history, which, I admit, is preaching to the choir for me since I am sharply critical of the current leadership of this country and of my home state of North Carolina (which got a well-deserved mention for shenanigans from 2016, and deserves further shame for the way the state leadership team recently used the 9/11 memorial as a way to win a vote that based on actual democratic representation they would have lost, revealing that they are both anti-democratic AND generally terrible people).

Here is the quote I choose to share from Bouie’s article, as he analyzes statements made by Republicans in recent years:

The larger implication is clear enough: A majority made up of liberals and people of color isn’t a real majority. And the solution is clear, too: to write those people out of the polity, to use every available tool to weaken their influence on American politics. (Bouie)

Reading this article is enraging because we have seen anti-democratic strategies work too often in the past and the present. Nonetheless, let us recommit to push forward in the name of what democracy should be.

1619 Project: Desmond’s Essay

Today I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the 1619 Project, a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine. Today I read Matthew Desmond’s essay titled “If you want to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

As I have in previous posts, I want to avoid summarizing these articles because I don’t want to step on the work of the contributors (nor to misrepresent it). Instead, I chose a few quotes that particularly resonate for me:

It was not so much the rage of the poor white Southerner but the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous. It was rational, capitalistic, all part of the plantation’s design. (Desmond)

So important to ask who truly benefits from systematic injustices, usually those who create an illusion of distance from the evils from which they profit.

Unrestrained capitalism holds no monopoly on violence, but in making possible the pursuit of near limitless personal fortunes, often at someone else’s expense, it does put a cash value on our moral commitments. (Desmond)

 

I wish I could put in words what it means to be moral versus the self-serving faux virtue manufactured in our culture, often by those who claim to be religious, an empty substitute that yields some of the most immoral results.

It is the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless. It is the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929 and the recession of 2008. It is the culture that has produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. (Desmond)

Hmm… yes, you are right. Desmond is succeeding in indicating what it might mean to be moral by revealing the immorality of what we in the U.S. accept as status quo.

One other note that stood out to me was that he said it has been only two lifetimes since slavery ended. That hurt somehow, I suppose because I want as much distance as possible from the horrors of that time period. But I am naive, probably in a self-serving way, to suggest that the passing of time alone might protect us. As Hannah-Jones pointed out in her article (in a line that I’m still processing), the wrongs we inflict now arise from the wrongs of the past as a way to protect ourselves from any kind of reckoning. This most horrific history is being reenacted in altered forms again and again, every day.

And, as Desmond points out, it is how some of us earn money without effort.

His article included some helpful historical highlights by Tiya Miles and Mehrsa Baradaran.

I also wanted to include this quote from a section by Miles:

It is uncanny, but perhaps predictable, that the original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction. (Miles)

Addendum:

I found time to listen to the first two podcasts of the 1619 series that builds off of these articles, including authors reading parts of their work and interviews with the authors. When Desmond was interviewed, he said the following: “The enslaved workforce is where the country’s wealth resides” (at least for the first hundred years or so of the existence of the United States). So the investment and profit from slavery was shared widespread beyond the regions where slavery was legal, the early foundation of our economic growth. Deeply chilling insight.

The second podcast ends with Jesmyn Ward reading a piece of fiction she wrote for the series that you can find here: african-american-poets.html

I highly recommend listening to the podcasts. Here’s a link as a starting place: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/podcasts/1619-slavery-anniversary.html

The 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine

One of my goals has been to return to a special series in the New York Times Magazine called the 1619 Project published in August 2019 and use my blog as a place to reflect more on each piece.

Here is the link to this series:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html  I hope you will consider reading it, too.

I want to celebrate the importance of this undertaking without diverting attention away from the actual work and insightful contributors. How do I do that? I don’t want to talk over anyone: I want these voices heard.

Hmm. Still thinking. Here goes: I will choose one or two lines to highlight from each article. I will talk about what resonated for me… but as briefly as I can. My aim will be not to replace the experience of each piece but rather to nudge anyone who might be nudge-able to read the quote in its full context in each article (or story).

As a starting place, here is a critical line describing the goals of the series as a whole:

It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

(No author is named in this intro, fyi.)

I have decided to leave that quote standing by itself for now. Tomorrow (or sometime soon), I may share why this quote stands out to me.