Thursday, April 28, 2016

Almost White: A Provocative Study of America's Mixed Blood Minorities by Brewton Berry

Almost White: A Provocative Study of America's Mixed Blood Minorities by Brewton Berry is a study of mixed race communities in the United States.

Many of these groups, like the Melungeons of Appalachia, had mysterious origins. When Berry wrote this book in the 1960s, he had to rely on oral accounts of the origins of the community, and to a degree his visual impressions. Some Melungeons appeared to him as European-American, others Native American, and still others African-American. Then there were all varieties between -- often in the same family. Yet the Melungeons always considered themselves descended from Portuguese settlers, and therefore purely white.

Recent DNA studies of those who reported Melungeon ancestry shows that the founding population of the group were males of African descent, and females of Central and Northern European descent. This is not the picture we have when we think of interracial groups in our early history. Some scholars think that group was founded before the institution of slavery was firmly established by race, when African slaves and European indentured servants freely mingled.

Regardless, these are the groups Berry visited and studied. He was very hands on, visiting these people, attending church with them, eating at their tables, and going to their rites of passages. One element these groups have in common is founding tales that try to establish them as white, or in other cases Native American. In a still heavily segregated America, these communities saw no benefit in being classified as African-American, and their origin stories stress this. There was a clear social benefit in claiming pure European origins.

When they could, such groups lived in isolated places to avoid racial labels. More lighter skinned people would often leave the area of their birth, so they were no longer associated with groups like the Red Bones or Brass Ankles, who were considered, as the title of this book suggests, almost white, but not white enough. Elsewhere, they could simply live as Americans of European descent.

Berry is quick to point out that there are no pure “races” and that admixture is the rule, not the exception. His groups are just obvious examples of this phenomenon, and far more a part of the American ethnic scene than many suppose. Social perception guided the categorization of these people.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance

Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance, by Lisa Alther, is a generally acceptable account of the famous feud - despite the embarrassing subtitle.  Having never read a narrative of this famous struggle, I found that this book, despite its title, spent little time on the actual feud, and more on the place and times which surrounded it.

Alther dispels many myths.  Not all Hatfields and McCoys participated in the feud.  Only a small branch of each family.  Often, Hatfields and McCoys testified against members of their extended family in court.  Other, non-family members were also involved.  Hatfields and McCoys fought on both sides of the Civil War, which in their area of West Virginia and Kentucky took on a brutal, neighbor vs. neighbor tone.  But we can’t pin the cause of the feud as an extension of the Civil War.

Alther seeks to show that the feud had no one cause, but many.  She convincingly shows that the people who settled in the feud area were descended from mix raced groups who fled into the mountains west of the original thirteen states to avoid racial classification (she credits a book called “Almost White” with much of this history). This created a culture of suspicion and insularity.  Yet even this explanation is not wholly sufficient, as very many people in the area never raised a hand against a neighbor in anger.

Much of the dispute came down to personalities with less than socially responsible impulses.  The other elements contributed somewhat to the conflict.

A good book, I am sure there are more comprehensive works on the Hatfield McCoy feud than this, somewhat light and glancing treatment.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Station Eleven. A novel by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven delves deep into the potential of the novel as a form to produce a work that is both complex in structure while approachable in style and the elements of story. St. John Mandel weaves back and forth to both the time before a flu killed ninety-nine percent of people, and after.

Along the way she introduces characters, leaves them, and returns to them again. Although this can sometimes present a complex arrangement, at least the mid-point of the novel she has introduced all the characters, and we start to see how they interlock.

And interlock the do.  St. John Mandel wrote mystery novels before this work, and she has the clever ability to leave clues and suggestions of things to come; and like a mystery writer, she is skilled at tying up all the far flung threads of the story she has written.

Station Eleven is bold in execution and elegant in style.  It illustrates that the whole spate of post-apocalyptic novels which has appeared in the last decade has yet to run out of creative steam.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Choosing to Love the World - Thomas Merton

Choosing to Love the World is a collection of writings, culled from various sources, by Trappist Monk Thomas Merton.  This collection really gets to the heart of the matter of his thought: what is it like to be a meditative, contemplative person, while engaging with a world which does everything to strip a person of these impulses?

For Merton, as for most contemplatives, isolation is not being alone as such, but getting connected to  deeper forms of human engagement with the world and the divine.  He says:

Without solitude of some sort there is and can be no maturity. Unless one becomes empty and alone, he cannot give himself in love because he does not possess the deep self which is the only gift worthy of love. And this deep self, we immediately add, cannot be possessed. My deep self is not “something” which I acquire, or to which I “attain” after a long struggle. It is not mine, and cannot become mine. It is no “thing”—no object. It is “I.”

Solitude is essential for emotional and spiritual maturity. And this must be accomplished existentially, by confronting the unity of God, the world and self on the plain of our existence.  Grand theories can’t do it.  Only engagement.  He says:

“The true solutions are not those which we force upon life in accordance with our theories, but those which life itself provides for those who dispose themselves to receive the truth. Consequently our task is to dissociate ourselves from all who have theories which promise clear-cut and infallible solutions, and to mistrust all such theories, not in a spirit of negativism and defeat, but rather trusting life itself, and nature, and if you will permit me, God above all. For [since people] have decided to occupy the place of God [people have shown themselves] to be by far the blindest, and cruelest, and pettiest, and most ridiculous of all the false gods.”

Merton’s sets a tone of sanity in our world of scattered impulses, poor attentions spans, and instant gratifications.  He speaks the language of engagement and patience.  We all need this.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Wright Brothers

David McCullough has taken the popular biography and made an art of the endeavor. The Wright Brothers is no exception. McCullough captures the kind of unbridled optimism that most of us associate with American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The United States was just emerging as a world power, it had a young, energetic president, and a spirit of inventiveness and entrepreneurship ruled the day.

This is the world we like to think when we conceptualize the Wright Brothers. They were white, male and Protestants. They were not people of color, or Jews, or woman. They were not poor. Without those 'marks' they were free to compete and win at the American game of inventiveness.

And they attacked the problem of manned flight like priests engaged in a holy crusade. They let nothing stop them -- living only for flight. They were oddly asexual. There is not a hint that either Orville or Wilber every exercised a sexual impulse. They did not have a families to support or mouths to feed. They worked on their planes.

Their invention would evolve, and one day drop atomic weapons on Japan, carpet bomb North Vietnam, and so on. But it would also make the world a much smaller place, helping to usher in our global age. Like nearly every human invention, their work produced a double edged sword.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by, Catherine Millet

The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet, deploys in its title the subterfuge of the Victorian sex novel, or perhaps a case history by Freud. But the book was written under her real name, informing us that rather than concealing her sexual life, she is really putting it on full display. And she certainly does so, without the least inhibition.

This books contains a number of interesting contradictions and paradoxes. At times, it is simply pornography. Millet relishes titillating her readers, and admits she is excited herself by writing of her exploits. But at the same time as she skims the surface of sexual encounters, she also digs deep into the motivations and drives which brought her to a life of nearly pure, unquestioning sexual acceptance. She will do nearly anything, with anyone, at any time. She venerates this stance as a form of ultimate freedom, even as she often describes it as a kind of subjugation.

Her kind of adoration of the flesh is akin to mysticism. Several times Millet explains how her encounters with the flesh of men help her leave her sense of being a fleshed-being. Yet there are dark sides. She tells us she was once beaten into a ditch by a jealous lover. She had an abortion. She contracted a sexually transmitted disease. She admits to not exploring her own pleasure in sex until she was at least thirty – when she had already had scores of sexual encounters. She explores this dark side of pure sexual freedom, but only lightly. For the most part, she has few qualm about her robust drives.

This odd memoir is hard to categorize. Millet reveals much but also conceals a great deal; at the end, it is difficult to form lasting conclusions about this elusive book.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Tampa: a novel

Alissa Nutting’s novel Tampa is a confusing mixture of elements and leaves the discerning reader with several questions. Is this book meant to titillate its readers or disgust them? From a strictly moral and legal point of view, the protagonist is guilty of sexual crimes and breaking the trust of minors. Is Nutting trying to write a novel about gender roles, transgression, and legal hypocrisy. Maybe, but the case is not strongly etched.

This novel does not shy away from explaining the particulars of explicit sex acts with minors. What is the point of this? There does not seem to be any compelling literary reason to detail them in such exacting ways. Nor does it add to the plot.

It seems Nutting wished to write a literary novel which skirted the outer edge of pornography - mixing the genres. We get neither at the end. Just a muddle.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Canticle for Leibowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz lives up to its fame as one of the greatest works of science fiction. Written in 1960, the three novels which comprise A Canticle still feel fresh and alive, despite the elimination of the premise of a nuclear World War III from our collective expectations. Miller does this by not veering away from the three essential elements of a story: plot, character, and language.

Miller's novels follow a course of thousands of years. He is able to deftly handle this by not apologizing for sharp changes. He throws the reader in, and we are expected to swim or drown. But we swim. He gently but firmly creates characters with a living sense. Despite their strange surroundings – they are always people. The characters have clearly defined and delineated emotions and thoughts. We can see ourselves as Miller’s characters.

Finally, his writing is clear and imaginative. Miller does not let the sci-fi genre carry him through difficulties of expression or depiction; he uses language deftly and carefully. The book's characters and plot rest on a firm foundation of solid, interesting prose.

A Canticle for Leibowitz deserves all of its laurels.