Friday Night Lights 2

Book Review: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights 2

People liked hearing that Texas was back, that they were tough and could take it and were up on their feet again. Fact and fiction merged. They liked George Bush in the same way they absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined.
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

A few years ago I worked for an organization that focused exclusively on rural issues. It was my first foray into frequently speaking with and researching people who didn’t grow up in the liberal bubbles within which I navigated my life. I quickly realized that the things I had “known” about rural places, particularly rural white places, were often just stories and caricatures of a way of living very different from my own.

Since then there’s been this pull inside me to learn more and read more about rural places — not just the news headlines about crazy conservative politics, but first person narratives and in-depth journalism that can only come from lived experience.

A lot of my reading about rural places has been from authors of color, like Louise Erdrich’s beautiful works about Chippewa reservations (example: Love Medicine) and Isabel Wilkerson’s fantastic odyssey The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration. In picking up Friday Night Lights, I felt like I had found a thoughtful, respectful book about small-town (if not exactly rural) white America.

On face, Friday Night Lights is all about football. The author-journalist Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas in 1988 to capture the entirety of one high school football season. He moved his whole family with him, sending his kids to school in the Odessa school system and doing his best to fully embed into the community through endless interviews and longer-term profiles of the team’s coach and several key players.

Bissinger eloquently captures the frenzy that overtook Odessa every Friday night that a football game was happening — the intense pride and unity that all community members supporting Permian High School felt for “their boys,” as well as the intense pressure the football players themselves felt to be perfect both on and off the field so as to live up to their community’s dreams. There are stories of the school district chartering a jet for fans to travel to away games, of teachers giving the football players test answer sheets along with their test to help keep grades up, of players delaying X-rays on knowingly-fractured bones so as not to become ineligible for playing in the next game, of the near-celebrity status of the stars of the team.

You can see pretty early on though that this is not just a book about the craze of football. It’s also a book about the town itself — its people and its politics, as well as the way it represents a lot of small-town middle America overall and the values of much of that demographic.

Some of the parts I found most interesting were about how the town of Odessa grew and changed over the years, including the race politics of the city. Oil created Odessa, which was mostly white in its beginnings. During the boom years new people arrived and the town flourished, and in the years when oil prices were low the town fell into a stagnancy and economic depression common to so many other small-town places. The black community of course lived almost exclusively on one side of the tracks, in the least desirable part of the city. When Latinos began moving to Odessa in larger numbers, most of them lived on the black side of the tracks as well, though some were able to make it to more affluent part of the town.

As the city got bigger the eastern part of town became the most affluent, most white section and also the location of the football powerhouse high school Permian. Bissinger chronicles how football played a role in perpetuating racism as it grew. When the town was forced to integrate its schools for instance, the black high school got closed down. Permian High School got to have a larger share of the black residents bused to their high school than the third high school across town because of the belief that blacks were faster than whites and the best candidates for runningbacks on the football team. Bissinger discusses several other unsavory accounts of race biases and discrimination throughout the book.

Some of Friday Night Lights is about politics. I felt that Bissinger did a great job of capturing why conservative politics resonated so strongly with the residents of Odessa. Respect, pride, and fighting for your lot in life were values burned into them by the indignities of the economic depression and the isolation they felt from the government. A few particular chapters of the book took me forward light years in understanding (not agreeing with) conservative towns — that it’s not about the policies but the rhetoric and the ability of politicians to tap into a hazy, dreamy vision of American grit. I kept having flashbacks to that Chrysler/Eminem commercial from the Super Bowl of a few years ago as Bissinger detailed the particular political ethos of the town.

I do have some reservations however about what this book meant to the residents of Odessa. The book faced a lot of controversy when it came out, and many people in the town didn’t appreciate the way Bissinger talked about their frenzy for football or their racial dynamics. Bissinger stresses his journalistic objectivity in defending his book, but the idea that anyone can be a completely impartial reporter has never sat well with me. So I do wonder what is missing from the book — if there are ways in which it doesn’t completely capture what the town was all about.

I think it’s about being open to multiple truths. You can learn a lot through documenting a new reality or from reading someone else’s first-hand experience of a new place, but I’m sure there are even more stories to be had that rest with the people of Odessa themselves. All in all, a well-created portrait.

5Stars25/5 STARS

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.

The Artist's Way

Book Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

The Artist's Way

One of social justice’s most fundamental goals is for everyone to have an equal voice in the world, to be able to share his or her own experiences with others and for others to listen openly and without discrimination. Creative pursuits are a part of that realization. While fighting for social justice policies and programs is important, it’s also a siloed process. The Democrats agree with the Democrats and the Republicans only agree with other Republicans. You can shout out a convincing argument from the rooftops, but nobody who needs to be convinced is paying any attention.

Creativity is expression that is (on face) non-partisan. Anyone might come to look at or read through a creative work. Anyone might have an open mind to the story being told. I’ve always written, but it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve started to understand and believe in the power of literature, photography, paintings, and other artistic activities to really change the world. It’s thinking through these issues that led me to pick up The Artist’s Way in the first place.

Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way as a guide for “blocked” creatives. Her book is quite literally a 12-step program for artistic people to rediscover their creativity and sense of purpose. As a writer and filmmaker herself, she draws upon her own experiences to shape a fundamental structure, short passages, and creative exercises for her readers.

Many people are already familiar with Cameron’s “morning pages,” which are a daily exercise she insists upon for all embarking upon The Artist’s Way journey. The idea is simple: write three longhand pages each and every morning. About what? Anything. Whatever comes to mind. Write about not wanting to write if that’s what comes out.

I’m no stranger to the practice of freewriting, but something about the page restriction and the enforced everyday nature of the morning pages was very helpful to me. I found myself thinking, planning, and envisioning ways that I could more fully incorporate creativity into my life.

Cameron’s exercises at the end of each chapter are quite useful when it comes to doing this envisioning practice. Her words and exercises encourage you to move past the mental, physical, and economic limitations that might exist in your life. She pushes this visioning past limits not to pretend they aren’t there, but in order to develop a crystal clear vision of what you want in your life. Otherwise, we are often motivated only to move away from what we don’t want or we get stuck doing nothing much that’s important to us. I found Cameron’s approach quite liberating, touching on all kinds of fears that were stopping me from even thinking about what a more creative life would look like.

The other staple of Cameron’s curriculum is the “artist date,” where you go out once a week (by yourself) to do something, anything, creative. You could be going to an art gallery, do scrap booking, take a long walk, or write spoken word. Whatever feels creative and freeing.

I’ll admit I didn’t hit quite manage to do the artist date every week, but I did do it most weeks. There is something to the action, the process of just getting out and doing something that is incredibly helpful for blocked creatives. In fact, if there were any lesson I learned loud and clear from The Artist’s Way it is to get out of your own head and act; take a shot — not necessarily a foolhardy move, but a chance on something you’ve convinced yourself isn’t possible or reasonable — and just go for it.

I will say Cameron is definitely of the religious sort, and that was the main challenge I had in reading through her book. There are a lot of references to God and a higher power, and on being open to the workings of the universe to make positive change in your life. Some of these thoughts resonated with me, others did not, and some felt a bit preachy. Those who are strongly atheist might find that this is not the book for them, though the basic principles might still be something to experiment with.

There’s a lot to take away from this book for its length, and it’s one that I feel I’ll be revisiting over the years as I continue further on my creative journey.

5Stars25/5 STARS

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.

Parable of the Sower

Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the SowerIn order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix

-Octavia Butler

I’d seen the above quote before in a number of places around the web, and I remember bookmarking it (back when people bookmarked things) to return to later. I’ve always felt the quote succinctly captures the fact that positive change cannot happen in a vacuum, and that change itself is one of the toughest things in life to accept. I’ve long been curious about the book that these wise words had come from.

Enter Parable of the Sower, the first book in the Earthseed series that Butler unfortunately wasn’t able to finish before she passed away (though she did leave behind one sequel, Parable of the Talents). In Sower, Butler creates a world where mankind is headed toward demise. Climate change has ruined much of the environment and economy, and people are left to eke out a life with relatively little support from any sort of formal government.

The protagonist, Lauren, lives in a gated community of several families that have banded together for safety. The families in the community are poor and always struggling to get by, but outside the walls is an even more grim environment, where violent drug addicts and the very poor roam the streets and live in abandoned houses, stealing from everyone else. All in all, it’s a pretty terrifying stage, especially since Butler chose to set the novel only a few decades in the future from where we are today.

Lauren is intriguing because she suffers from something called “hyperempathy syndrome,” where supposedly she experiences other people’s pain and pleasure. The condition makes it challenging for her to be around people who are hurt — and usually someone is hurting in this post-apocalyptic world — making the syndrome a threat to her being able to survive. Butler is always playing around with these interesting scenarios and factors in her novels.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the fragile balance of Lauren’s world gets upset and she’s forced to completely rethink how she’ll move forward with her life. And throughout the book she begins to shape her own religion, called Earthseed. The initial quote, for instance, is one piece of her new religion’s writings.

I really enjoyed the way Butler challenged me to think about the U.S. as a third-world country and what it would be like to live in a world of rapidly dwindling resources. Children who grow up in America are taught that they live in the most powerful and influential country in the world, and this book made me reflect on what we lose through that kind of thinking — perhaps a shared sense of humanity and a deep appreciation for the natural resources that keep us alive.

I’m really interested at some point in reading Octavia’s Brood, an anthology of short stories that use this science fiction idea of renvisioning the world, but particularly for the means of social justice. Butler’s works seem to have inspired a lot of this kind of big thinking.

I do have to admit, the plot does move a little slow sometimes, and there are a lot of different characters to keep track of throughout the book. So the reading itself wasn’t as all-engrossing as I hoped it would be. But I do plan on reading the next book in the series though at some point, since Butler leaves you with a bit of a cliffhanger.

I’d also encourage anyone interested in Octavia Butler to read Kindred, which also plays around with the idea of alternate realities and draws in more explicitly themes of race.


It's What I Do

Book Review: It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario

It's What I DoI’m not sure I can say that my life has ever legitimately been in danger — much less that I know what I would do if kidnapped in the everyday process of doing my work. But these are some of the things that Addario talks about in her memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.

What is perhaps most compelling about Addario’s memoir is her relentless pursuit of her passion: visually documenting some of the world’s most intense conflicts and humanitarian crises. We see what it takes to rise to the top in the cutthroat environment of aspiring photojournalists, especially in her early career.

Bad Feminist

Book Review: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad FeministRoxane! Why?! I’ll be honest, Bad Feminist was hard to get through. I read it for my book club and when it came time for us to all talk about the book, we looked around the table at each other with a collective “ummm…”

Don’t get me wrong — the Scrabble story was great. Who wouldn’t want to know what it’s like to be in a competitive Scrabble league in the middle of America? Better yet, who wouldn’t want to hear about Gay’s hot pink playing board and the intensity with which competitive Scrabble aficionados adhere to the rules?

But after those fun and games (pun intended), I hit a rut with this one. Gay presents a number of book reviews, movie reviews, and pop culture analysis as a lens through which to comment on race and feminism. But there’s not enough tying the essays together to make the work feel like anything cohesive.