Friday, November 17, 2017

Class & Gender: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters




Sarah Waters novel, The Paying Guests, showcases this author’s distinct ability to take a momentary emotion, a fleeting feeling fed by a glance, a touch, a smell, and then shape her words into a multilayered and dense examination of our emotional lives.  

Waters has this touch, and more; she manages to create the world of 1922 England which we expect, but seldom to never does she rest on cliche or stereotype.  This novel is about gender and class in a typically English way, but Waters brings a fresh edge to these well-worn topics.

Perhaps the novel goes on for too long.  Toward the end, events grow belabored as the novel takes a sudden and dramatic turn.  This blemish is forgivable given the first three fourths of the book.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Zap: a novel, by Svetlana Lavochkina





Svetlana Lavochkina’s novel “Zap” offers readers a rare combination of a well-written, smart novel, combined with biting, often bawdy humor.  

The author knows her trade.  She deftly brings the reader through various eras of the Soviet experiment (and the pre-Soviet era) in her native Ukraine with an insider’s knowledge, bringing a verisimilitude of place, a fixation on accurate, often hilarious detail, to an otherwise sprawling, epochal, novel.

I know the author, and this work was long in the making.  The reader will be amply rewarded by the author’s effort.  Lavochkina writes in an English idiom largely of her own making, crafting a work that is unique in the sound and tempo of the language, something a native writer would be hard pressed to construct.

In fact,“Zap” is very different in tone, style, pacing and structure from most novels.  It is a truly singular work, with exceptional insights, style, tone and pacing. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South




In Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South the author explores what he characterizes as “A war launched to preserve slavery [which] succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise.”

In other words, had the south not seceded from the Union, slavery would have probably been preserved in some form or another in America for years to come.  For Levine, the Civil War quickly became a second American Revolution - really a social revolution, as he calls it; the south would not only be defeated, and soundly, but the entire structure of the American Republic would be altered.

In the decades prior to the Civil War, the planter class wielded a great deal of authority in all branches of the government ­­­– far exceeding their size or economic importance.  The war would end that dominance in 1865.  

Of course, this revolution was incomplete.  Levine only handles reconstruction, its failure, and Jim Crow, very briefly.  The promise of the Civil War would not truly be realized into law until the Civil Rights movement a hundred years later.  And we continue to grapple with the issues of the Civil War today.  In a real sense, the revolution is ongoing. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

My European Family: The First 54,000 Years




In My European Family: The First 54,000 Years, by Karin Bojs, the author explores her own ancestry using a variety of tools.  She explores the archaeology of various areas in Europe, especially Scandinavia, the oral stories of her family, and the technologies that have developed recently in the genetic study of ethnic origin.

Bojs is a science journalist, and so is adept at explaining complicated details for the laymen without dumbing down the material.  At the same time, she is apt at weaving her own family and personal story, along with the wider scope of human historical trends.  This makes for a both very intimate and yet objective book.

Of course this book would not have been possible without the recent rise of relatively cheap genetic tests.  Bojs explores the possibilities and limitations of these tests, raising legitimate concerns about the limitations, which are often downplayed.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Fiend: A Novel





Peter Stenson’s Fiend: A Novel had just enough verve to keep me reading, even though the initial premise of the book seemed thin or lacking.  In Fiend, meth users are the only people to survive a zombie apocalypse.  Stenson pulls this novel off largely by not straying from the mark.  I admire this kind of writer, one who stays true to his or her vision.  In the end, it provides the ballast for a story.

A note: a sloppy read of Fiend makes using meth seem a romantic or enhancing experience.  It is neither, so please don’t read the novel in a sloppy manner!  

Thursday, November 2, 2017

When Corruption Rules: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns



Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns, is an account of the political and military unrest in the Congo for much of the 1990s onward. Stearns does a remarkable job considering the complexity of the war, and the ignorance of people about the Congo.

What we get is an account of how the Congo works, or fails to work, as a political and social entity. This makes for sober reading.  If a culture can develop, or evolve, into such an utterly corrupt entity where any contact with it comprises a person’s moral sense, we should all be very troubled.  For if it happens in the Congo, it can just as well happen here.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Race, Class, & Gender: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed





The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed, is an exhaustive look at race in America, both during the time period of Thomas Jefferson’s interactions with Sally Hemings at Monticello, and American as a whole.

Yet the complexities of this story extend beyond race as well.  Gordon-Reed must and does explore gender inequality, social inequality among whites and blacks, as well as race and ethnicity along with the idiosyncrasies in the lives of particular white and black people; this makes for a layered complex story.

Rather than shy away from this, Gordon-Reed dives right in.  She is hobbled by the fact that half of her subject matter, the enslaved people of Monticello, particularly the Hemingses, have little if any written records of their lives. What we know of them is from their own recollections years later, memories of descendants, or any records kept by Jefferson and his employees.

Therefore, Gordon-Reed must make many speculative jumps.  She has no other choice.  Yet these are very well informed jumps, and I believe most readers will be satisfied with the voice she gives to people who were very purposefully blotted from the Jefferson family history.