Local bibliophiles review their recent reads
This Book Look is the latest installment of a recurring round-up of book reviews by local readers. To contribute to this feature, contact the Kittanning Library. We would love to share your critiques & recommendations with other readers.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Book Review by Daphne Ruffner
Reading, or re-reading, a classic is always a good idea. Maybe it’s re-discovering a book you were assigned as a student; now you can enjoy as just a great read.
This is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad originally published in 1910. It is considered to be among the half dozen greatest short novels, dealing with exploring the dark places of the human soul.
The setting is Africa, specifically the Congo Free State and the year is 1890. The Congo would soon be renamed the Belgian Congo. This is the time of Stanley and Livingstone and the invasion of the Belgians who raped the land of its natural resources and perpetrated a genocide essentially unnoticed by the rest of the world.
They built massive European-style buildings in the jungle, along with railroads, hospitals, libraries, and a lavish hotel where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn stayed while filming the African Queen. These structures were accessible to the natives only for employment at low paying service jobs. They could not get treatment at a hospital, have a meal in a restaurant, or check out a library book.
The narrator of our books is Marlowe, an Englishmen conducting an exposition for 60 men for 200 miles in search of Kurtz, the Chief of the Inner Station (Leopaldville). Tales of Kurtz’s barbarism and greed have traveled as far as London. The Belgians were “the conquerors, not colonists as they professed, who took by brute force, robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale.”
Finally, arriving at the mouth of the Congo, Marlowe is confronted with starving men in chains, disease, and the whispers of the greatness of Kurtz, who is dealing in ivory. After every conceivable delay and inefficiency the slow trip up river begins.
When they finally arrive at the Inner Station, it is in decay and overrun with ivory. There are heads on spears. Kurtz finally appears being carried on a stretcher, frail, and sickly, and possibly near death. The natives, some cannibals, idolize Kurtz and, if he dies, may become aggressive.
The Belgians left quickly in the 1930s, abandoning everything. Independence was looming for the Congolese with the election of a different kind of despot. Nothing really changed for the natives. The poverty and murder continued. The grand buildings still remain today in ruins.
Daphne Ruffner is an avid reader and lover of good books. She can be found volunteering at the library and perusing patron donations and book sales for gently-used gems. Daphne plans and coordinates the much-anticipated Kittanning Library Book Sales.
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
Review by Tiffany Harkleroad
This year, I decided to participate is some reading challenges. Essentially, a reading challenge is a list of prompts or criteria regarding what books you choose to read. One of the prompts on Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge is to “read a memoir by someone from a religious tradition that is not your own”.
For this prompt, I selected the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. This book describes Deborah’s life growing up in an ultra-orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York.
Deborah tackles intense topics such as the roles of women in the strict conservative community, the stringent religious and social codes that must be followed, and her personal struggles to satisfy her own needs.
The early portion of the book talks about Deborah’s childhood. Her mother left the community when Deborah was young, and her father had some intellectual disabilities, so Deborah was primarily raised by her grandparents, with additional oversight of an aunt.
From a young age, Deborah makes choices that go against the norms of the religious community; as a result, she is always treated somewhat as an outsider. When she is seventeen, she is married to an older Hasidic man, and the course of the book changes considerably.
Deborah struggles with marriage and intimacy, both physical and emotional, and slowly begins to pull away from her community. At the age of nineteen, she has a child, and realizes that she must leave Hasidism, not only for her own sake, but for her child’s.
I found this book incredibly fascinating; extreme orthodoxy in general is so interesting to me, but especially so with Hasidic Jews. We rarely hear stories of escape or survival from the Hasidic communities, unlike other orthodox groups, so there is some sense of novelty in reading the book. However, that is also the same reason that it can be hard to connect to such stories.
Having no knowledge of Hasidism, I had some difficulty connecting with some parts of the book, or fully understanding the gravity of some of the information.
Clearly, however, this book is compelling, because since its original publication in 2012, it has been adapted into an original series by Netflix. The series is based on the stories from Deborah’s life, but fictionalized in that our main character is a girl named Esty, and her circumstances do vary slightly from Deborah’s own.
Still, the main concepts and themes of the book are covered in the television series quite well. The added visual element of a television series makes Deborah’s stories that much more impactful.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to readers who are fans of memoirs, or enjoy learning about extreme orthodoxy within insular communities. This book certainly provides its readers with an entirely new world view.
Tiffany Harkleroad is the Youth Services Librarian at the Butler Area Public Library. She has long championed graphic novels for readers of all ages. She lives in Butler with her husband, their two adorable dogs, and their very cranky cat. When not reading graphic novels, she can be found playing board games, binging on documentaries, listening to podcasts, and taking long naps.
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor
by Layla F. Saad
Review by Jillian Larko
Recently I decided to pick up a book I'd had on my list for a few months. With the social upheaval across the country triggered by the murder to George Floyd, I felt it was the perfect time to delve into Layla F. Saad's book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor.
The book is an eye opener for any white person to read, regardless of where they live and their relationship with race and their own biases.
This is not a comfortable read, and it is not meant to be. Saad tells the reader from the get-go that the purpose of the book is not to make readers feel warm and fuzzy in the end, but instead to educate readers about white supremacy and how they should work through their own experiences with it to better understand how to undermine and dismantle it.
“Create the change the world needs by creating change within yourself.” This quote opens a book that grew out of a wildly successful Instagram challenge initiated by Saad in 2018.
The chapters are structured to be read at one's own pace, though the original challenge was to be completed over the course of 28 days with a new prompt to focus on each day.
The prompts work through understanding instilled prejudices lending to white privilege (the advantages we possess as white people over other races), white fragility (defensiveness and self-victimization when confronted with discussions about race that make us uncomfortable), tone policing (telling a black person that their tone is too aggressive or is not productive to the conversation), white silence (not speaking out against injustice when we should, as our silence on the matter speaks volumes), and other important points.
Each prompt has a set of journaling questions to help readers work through their own biases and realize how, though they may have never meant to be racist, many examples may exist where readers exercised some form of prejudice toward the black community. Once someone recalls and comes to terms with their own contribution to white supremacy, they can start to undo those patterns and fight against this oppressive, deep-seated system with a much clearer idea of how to be a good ally without getting in the way.
I recommend this book to every single white person. Now is the time to acknowledge how readers may have unintentionally hurt others and work toward a future without the violence and damaging effects of white supremacy.
Throughout the book, the reader learns how to acknowledge, accept, and then act on their own complicity in white supremacy in order to help the black community and work toward tearing down the system that has kept that community underfoot for centuries.
Jillian Larko is a librarian working at the New Castle Public Library. She is currently making the most of her time off cuddling her guinea pigs, riding her horse in the woods (social distancing, huzzah!), catching up on her mountainous to-be-read pile, and rewatching the Marvel films ad nauseum.