Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Underground Railroad

I always struggle with Colson Whitehead’s novels, and I continue to do so with this book, The Underground Railroad, which landed the author the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.  His novels leave me with the sense that there was more to do with the story, and he failed to seize that ground.

There is no doubt that a great talent had created this novel.  The story begins with a  familiar sense of things in the antebellum south, but soon changes to a strange sort of parallel world – familiar but out of order.  Whitehead preforms this feat well.

Whitehead is condensing the history of race in America in this story, presenting us, without regard to historical order, the impact of race in American life.  Yet, what Whitehead’s characters say about race often isn’t all that new, or presented in an engaging way.  Take this quote:

“America… is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

This is true, all of it, and in the hands of a lesser writer, just fine.  But this book won two prestigious awards.  I wanted the author to provide a searing view of race in America.  But often, the language just falls back on words and themes we already know. So, for me, once again, Whitehead has not seized all the ground available. This makes The Underground Railroad a gripping and intriguing novel but far from a masterpiece.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Jane Eyre the Pagen

The greatest shame of all is that Jane Eyre was required reading during my years in high school.  As a high school student I simply did not have the life experience, or appreciation of Bronte’s writing to truly understand the mastery of the work.

Take but one example.  Elements of folk religion and practices are sprinkled throughout Jane Eyre.  In Jane’s first encounter with Mr. Rochester, he asks her if she is waiting for the Green men, the legendary inhabitants of the forest and wilds.  He constantly imputes to her pagan powers and intuitions, and Jane seldom refutes them.  On the other hand, St. John Rivers invests Jane with a strict and puritanical Christian religious calling, which she rejects on the terms he offers.

Just this one element, the uneasy cohabitation of pagan England of the moors and their spirits, and the harsh Christian discipline of St. John, between Nature and Nature’s God, can surpass even the most experienced reader’s ability to weight and understand what Bronte is writing. 

Truly, we must bring a great deal of attention to read this remarkable novel.

Friday, January 5, 2018

How to Keep Kosher: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Jewish Dietary Laws by Lise Stern

How to Keep Kosher: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding Jewish Dietary Laws by Lise Stern handles all the basics of what it means to keep kosher, both from a theoretical and practical standpoint.  Her prose is clear, and she lucidly describes the often complicated set of procedures to be kosher and keep kosher, both at home and elsewhere.

This book is a great start for those who want to start keeping kosher, or those who need a refresher course on the basics.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is a fascinating and sobering view of the dynamics of housing for the very poorest members of our society.  Probably the most important element of Desmond’s book is the insider view.  He gets into the nuts and bolts of a slum trailer park (both from the owner and renter's view), as well as the complex interactions between a 'slum' lord and her tenants.  

The object lesson: our government and society simply do not do enough to raise people out of the cycle of poverty.  Our policies are not geared toward improving the income of our most disadvantaged citizens.  We largely ignore or punish them for their poverty.  And the near homelessness of such people, only compounds the problem.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Roundlets - poem - Eric Maroney

South winter light dappled
On the pallor of your skin
Yet blushing, you, the
Daughter of the highlands
A cheek of crimson flush
A mixed maiden
Half-girl, half-wife
And fully luminous
The haloed girl of the north
You a body of garland and scent
Round and wild with hips tumbling
To the root of your mossy crag
Of a verdant tumbling land
You half-girl your hair damp
Roundlets rosy like drizzled berries
Dripping from a seasoned bog
Here but all from far away
Like a distant covered land

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

The Death of Grass, a 1956 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by John Christopher, suffers from a number of fatal flaws. 

Christopher moves the novel at a swift place, which helps the novel in some places, while hindering it in others.  This book is supposed to illustrate how quickly people are stripped of their civilized veneer  as society collapses.  Fair enough given the genre. But Christopher really puts this concept into overdrive, and characters we hardly know are murdering and pillaging without sufficient preparation. Something feels missing.

The concept of the valley with the river is captivating, however.  And although the acute reader will figure out the end, it winds up being the thread that keeps the book moving forward with some urgency.  We all want to find safety in the valley with a swift river.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 by David J. Silbey

A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 by David J. Silbey, is the history of a little known conflict, an outgrowth of the Spanish-American War.  Our nation, takings its first steps as a world power, easily defeated the Spanish in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.  But the Philippines had a native, organized army, which actually fought most of the war against the Spanish.  It was the hope of this government that American intervention would lead to immediate independence.

This was not the case.  The United States instead fought a conventional campaign against the Filipino army. These set piece battles caused high casualty rates on the Filipino side.  Then war then shifted to an insurgency/guerrilla campaign, and although the Filipinos were more successful at this stage, eventually America won the war and occupied the island. Silbey’s conclusions about the war and American presence in the Philippines will no doubt ruffle some feathers.  He views the American occupation as beneficial to the Philippines and its people.  No doubt, many would argue this point.   

Despite this, Sibley shines a fascinating light on American intervention abroad  in the early days of our nation as a world power.