Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Forgotten No More

The Forgotten Fifth by Gary Nash
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2006.
ix, 235 p. : ill. ; 19 cm.

I almost forgot to put up a review of this book that I read toward the end of the summer vacation, but it is a wonderful history book.  The subtitle of the the book explains what this history is about: African Americans in the Age of Revolution.      

The book grew out of a distinguished series of lectures given by Nash at Harvard University and fills in a lot of the missing history of African Americans and their fortunes and activities during the American Revolution.

The book really conveys how unfortunate the Revolution and its outcome was for so many African American slaves, and how the rise of even more vicious White Supremacy and racist hatred affected African American patriots of the Revolution.

I especially wanted to post a review of the book because of the current rising power of White Supremacy in the US.  I also wanted to be sure and mention that this book makes a great companion to the book - In the Shadow of Liberty.

I would definitely recommend this book.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Love This Hate

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
New York, NY : Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, [2017]
444 p. ; 22 cm.   

It is hard to imagine a better novel being written for young adults on the topic of police killings of unarmed black people.  Thomas has a remarkable gift for dialogue and characterization that pulls the reader into the world of her main character, Starr, a black high school student who is with her friend when he is pulled over and killed by a police officer.

Starr straddles many worlds - lives in a struggling, black section of town but goes to an exclusive mostly white school, has a dad who has done time in prison and a mom who is a successful professional, sees the harsh and lethal behavior of the police toward black people, but has a dear relative who is a cop.  With such a character, Thomas is able to create a work that has hooks for all kinds of readers, and allows conflicting viewpoints to get a hearing.  It's really quite an accomplishment.  Additionally, with a story that is really dramatic and interesting and characters who are fascinating, you can see why this is such a popular novel.

Since police killings of unarmed citizens and police brutality continue to make headlines, I imagine that The Hate U Give will be in demand for a long time.

The only critiques I have of the book are that it gets a bit complicated as far a characters go - there are a dizzying array of friends, relatives and acquaintances and secondary characters to keep up with.  Lastly there are a few scenes - especially with Starr's father - where his dialogue feels staged for the sole purpose of detailing the politics and ideals of the black power movement.  But those are minor criticisms.  Mainly I was really pleased with this book.

Recommended?  Definitely!

Monday, August 14, 2017

Shining a Light on the Shadows

In the Shadow of Liberty: the Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives by Kenneth C. Davis.
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 2016.
xvii, 286 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.

I was interested in this book as soon as I saw a review of it.  The Shadow of Liberty seemed like a great addition to the limited resources that we have on the period of the American Revolution and early history of the republic - and one that students might actually pick up and read.  As the book's subtitle indicates, it also might have a nice resonance with the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. But what finally motivated me to read it this summer was seeing that one of our history teachers launched a Donors Choose page in order to get enough copies of the book for his class so he could use it as a central text.

This is a great young adult history book.  It's very interesting, has succinct chapters, and relates a history that is rarely told - the role of several of the first US presidents in keeping people enslaved.  It's also great in that it does not in anyway minimize the criminality and cruelty of enslaving people, but it also tries to wrestle with the complicated relationships that developed within that awful system.  Davis often just lets the actions of people speak for the conflicted loyalties, humanity and inhumanity that resulted from slavery.  He allows us to hear from former enslaved people when such texts exist, and lets us reach our own conclusions about why some enslaved people escaped when the opportunity arose and why some did not when the same circumstances existed.  He also tries hard to contextualize comments positive and negative that enslavers and the enslaved made.

I also really appreciate his introduction where he lays his own moral judgements on the table, and where he explains why he is so careful to use the word enslaved to describe those held in bondage instead of the word "slave." It is a powerful semantic tool, one which another writer on the history of slavery in the US also uses to great effect.

I'm glad that I read this book.  I'm pleased that it is going to be taught in our school.  I will definitely recommend it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Talent and Ego

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple
New York, NY : Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, [2015]
338 p. : ill. (chiefly col.) ; 23 cm.

I added this book to our collection this year since it had received such glowing reviewsBooklist in a starred review stated, "Jaw dropping, awe inspiring, and not afraid to shock....There's no one else like her; prepare to be blown away by both the words and pictures."

I was not so taken with this memoir.  Crabapple is a talented and hardworking artist, and she does have a lot of daring and moxie as she jumps into risky adventures of international travel and pushes and pushes to have her intense drawing-based artworks accepted in the competitive New York art world (and she works constantly at improving her drawing and painting skills). So far so good, but her tale is also one of a massive ego, and also one of ethical contradictions where she is both entranced with the debauched world of the super-rich, while at the same time disdainful of it.  It's interesting, but problematic.  

There is also her use of her conventional attractiveness to both support herself and gain access to the exclusive realms of the super rich.  She works as a nude model, works with strippers and burlesque performers - and writes about the interesting, hard, exploitative and dangerous work that entails, but also seems to accept and at times endorse the sexualization and commodification of women.  Again, it makes for interesting reading, but it is troubling in that it goes largely unchallenged.

So would I recommend this memoir?  Well, I'd definitely mention it to someone curious about contemporary bohemian life and about ways that people make it in the art world.  Did I find it inspiring or wonderful?  Not so much.

Monday, July 31, 2017

An Escape to Treasure

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
New York : Signet Classics, [2008]
xviii, 204 p. : map ; 18 cm.

I probably wouldn't have read Treasure Island if I hadn't heard it referred to in a New Yorker poetry podcast featuring the poetry editor, Paul Muldoon, and poet, Tom Sleigh, discussing a poem by Seamus Heaney that references Treasure Island.  How's that for a convoluted beginning?  It wasn't just the discussion, but it was Muldoon's mentioning that he absolutely loves Treasure Island, and reads it frequently.  That caught my attention, and so I brought it home with me to read over the summer.

So was it worth reading?  Definitely.  The novel moves along at a quick pace with skilled plotting and has wonderful characters, too.  The admirable young protagonist, Jim Hawkins, the devilish Israel Hands, and the wily and dangerous Long John Silver are unforgettable. 

The novel creates the template for pirate fiction, and does it with dash.  This is a fun novel that I would definitely recommend to students.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

His Last Battle

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant
New York : Barnes & Noble, 2003.
xxx, 820 p. : ill., maps ; 21 cm.

I've been wanting to read this memoir ever since I saw a quote of Mark Twain's praising it as one of the finest pieces of American writing.

The back story of this book (which is told in the introduction of this volume) is also pretty amazing.  Retired from the military and from being President, Grant had lost all his money and so set about writing the book to raise money for his family.  About the same time he began writing he was stricken with throat cancer and so began his race against death to finish his work.  Like his campaigns in the Civil War, he was successful - dying three days after finalizing his manuscript, and making his widow and survivors wealthy with the royalties from his book which ended up being a huge bestseller.

But how is the book? I would agree that it is very well written, and reveals Grant's subtle, but sharp intellect.  It is also very interesting to see Grant carefully praising and criticizing some of the generals of both sides.  He also has a well argued discussion of why the war was so difficult for the North to win.  The only downside for me was that much of the book is taken up with detail after detail of tactics and troop movements.  The maps are not very clear or helpful.  But aside from these issues, I'm glad I read it and it made me curious to learn more about Grant's presidency - which is not covered at all in the book (and is considered to be one the most corrupt in US history).

Probably one of the most compelling aspects of Grant's life, is that he really was a "nobody," from a modest background and with no early signs of being successful as a leader or tactician.  His memoir can serve as a testament to the potentials that are often hidden within individuals - especially those who have not had great successes in their past.  In this vein, Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a spirited endorsement of Grant's Memoirs - especially noting the unfounded suggestions that it was written by Mark Twain.

A great historical read, but probably best for students with a keen interest in the Civil War.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Battle Cry Is Great History

Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era by James M. McPherson
Oxford [U.K.] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2003, c1988.
xix, 909 p. : ill., maps, music ; 24 cm.

If you are looking for a one volume history of the Civil War instead of reading five or six separate Civil War histories, then you can't go wrong with McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.  It's a masterful handling of the war that ripped the US apart for four extremely bloody years.  Given the quality and clarity of the narrative, I'm not surprised that the book was a huge bestseller and won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for History.

McPherson begins his book with the US-Mexican War and builds a sound case for considering enslavement (and the unyielding defense of slavery's expansion and power) as the ultimate cause and fight of the war.  McPherson also gives great attention to the cultural and political movements involved before, during and immediately after the Civil War.

It's not a short book (about 900 pages), but it is well written and illustrated with interesting photos and a number of very clear maps.

I read this book this summer as a prelude to reading the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.  It was a really helpful preparation for Grant's long work.  I would highly recommend it.