2015 Reading: The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist

14894629The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist

This is the book we’re discussing this month at Reading Liberally. The book is filled with remarkable detail about the economics of slavery and the industrial growth of America. So much detail that the book feels too academic for the typical reader. I found myself longing for an executive summary. A twenty-page precis would have been fine to make the point, I think. Still, the detail makes it all the more compelling.

Most of us already know (despite some modern denials) that slavery was evil. Despicable, unconscionable, usually brutal, and wrong. Many of our country’s early leaders were slave-owners even while professing opposition to the practice. Those who truly did oppose slavery lacked the political strength to do anything about it until Abraham Lincoln came along, more than eighty years after the country came into being. Slavery was an underlying theme of many of the largest political clashes our young country faced.

And anyone who doubts that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery should be forced to read this book.


2015 Reading: This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

thischangeseverythingThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

I understand that climate change is real; I accept that human activity is responsible; and I believe we should be doing everything we can to stop churning harmful emissions into the atmosphere. And yet this book, which is subtitled “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” actually made me question these beliefs. To put it simply, Klein has made her argument in such a way–with not even a nod toward rhetorical balance–that it becomes difficult to believe many of the assertions she makes.

The solution to the coming catastrophe that is climate change, she is saying, is to blow up the world as we know it, to end the global economic systems of trade and finance, to put an immediate end to the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, to saddle corporations and the wealthy with the enormous cost of accomplishing these tasks, and while we’re at it, they should also be paying reparations to poor countries and indigenous peoples and the descendants of slaves, none of whom are responsible for putting us in the position we’re in. Even if she’s right–and her arguments aren’t, to me, compelling–she’s obviously hallucinating. None of that is going to happen, not even if the seas rise a foot, the glaciers all melt, and weather systems go even more berserk than they have already.

She begins the book by attacking trade and, especially, the free trade agreements that have been put in place, beginning with NAFTA. She may be right that these trade agreements are in conflict with the goals of other, later, agreements that seek to address climate change. But in my opinion she is not right that increased trade is necessarily the culprit. Trade agreements probably need to be reformed so that they take environmental and social impacts more into account, but they are not inherently bad.

And near the end of the book, she brings in the oddly inapplicable story of her own fertility history, and concludes, illogically, that she was able to conceive and carry her baby to term (despite a history of miscarriages) because she visited a naturopathic doctor. Never mind that women have had problems with miscarriages since forever and that there is no proof that any of the steps she took resulted in her successful pregnancy. She might as well have concluded that vaccines cause autism. (Indeed, I looked in the index to see if she might have addressed that topic as well.)

The bottom line: I know climate change is a serious problem, but this book (a) did not persuade me of that fact; and (b) did not point to a practical solution to that problem.

Recommendation: Don’t waste your time.

2015 Reading: Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

brooklynBrooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin

I listened to the audio version of this book, with appropriate Irish accents for many of the characters, something I would have lost if just reading. I might not have enjoyed the book as much as I did without those accents.

Even with the accents I have mixed feelings. The story follows Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl, as she goes from Ireland to Brooklyn in the early 1950s in search of opportunities she won’t find at home. Her struggles seem very familiar, both internal and external, including her feelings about a young man she meets. When she returns home for a visit, her internal struggles escalate.

The cast of characters is appealing, although Eilis, the protagonist, is not, particularly. Still, the book is a nice look into the post-war Irish immigrant experience, and so for that reason I’m glad I read it.

2015 Reading: Silent Murders by Mary Miley

silentmurdersSilent Murders (A Roaring Twenties Mystery) by Mary Miley

This is the second in a series of mysteries set in the Roaring Twenties. The first volume, The Impersonator, set in the Pacific Northwest, was interesting because the protagonist was participating in a scam to collect the inheritance of a woman missing for years and in the process found herself embroiled in bootlegging and murder. The impersonation alone gave the story suspense that didn’t depend on the solution to the murder mystery.

In this book, the same young woman is now in Hollywood, working for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Although she has an assumed name, like many wannabe stars in Hollywood, she’s basically herself here. But when a series of murders happen around her, she becomes a sleuth, aided by Fairbanks, and discovers the truth when the police don’t seem to be able to do so.

It’s a fast, enjoyable read, and the book’s use of historical figures many of us have heard of–Fairbanks, Pickford, Myrna Loy, Charlie Chaplin, etc.–is smart (although it does limit the suspect pool somewhat). The author’s detailed research is on display here, too, and the rendering of the 1920s is entirely convincing.

There is a fair amount of explanatory dialogue that was a bit frustrating–characters frequently tell each other things that they probably already know, but that the author wants the reader to know. But aside from that, it’s definitely a good read.

2015 Reading: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

fightclubFight Club: A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve seen some of the clips, so I wasn’t prepared for the book’s complexities. I’m now willing to watch the movie, but I doubt it will measure up.

It’s tough to write a review without giving too much away, but the narrator, who is dealing with issues relating to his father, comes under the influence of Tyler, a guy who is increasingly weird. Tyler’s weirdness is moderated by the oddness of Marla, the woman with whom both the narrator and Tyler are involved.

I’m not a fan of the “transgressive” genre, which might have started with this book. Fistfights and violence get old after a while. Still, this was definitely not a waste of time.

2015 Reading: We Were Flying to Chicago by Kevin Clouther

wewereflyingWe Were Flying to Chicago by Kevin Clouther

I might not have heard of this collection of stories except I’m going to be on a panel with Kevin Clouther and another author (Craig Bernier) at the Virginia Festival of the Book in a few weeks. Unless I’m moderating a panel like this, I rarely have the time to read the other panelists’ books ahead of time, but because I have no moderating chores at this year’s festival, I decided I would read these two books.

And I enjoyed this collection very much. It’s a mixture of realistic stories—most of which seem to end before you might want them to—and unrealistic stories that are somewhat in the vein of Haruki Murakami (minus the enigmatic cat).

An example of the first kind of story is the last one in the book, “Puritan Hotel, Barnstable.” In it, Michael has come to Barnstable to visit his brother, Connor, who is hospitalized and awaiting surgery to remove a brain tumor. Their father is present in the story—the father from whom Michael is estranged—and there is an element of lapsed Catholicism, a theme that runs throughout the book. But Michael leaves the hospital before the surgery, promising Connor that he’ll be there when Connor wakes up.

The story “Open House” is an example of the more unrealistic work in the collection, although it can also be viewed realistically. Two people—not a couple, apparently—work for an “Agency” (the CIA, I thought for a while, but maybe a Real Estate Agency) and pose as a couple interested in buying homes. They go from one open house to the next, shills that demonstrate to real potential buyers that there is competition. None of which is explained to the reader.

The stories in the collection have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Gettysburg Review, Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. It’s a fine book, published by Black Balloon Publishing, which is also new to me.

2015 Reading: A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

walksunA Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

This novel is the February selection of my bookclub, Reading Liberally. Our discussion this week should be especially interesting because the author will be joining us.

The book is about human trafficking, and it is glimpsed in many of its facets here: sex work, pornography, drug transport, slavery. The book opens with the devastation of the Christmas tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast and South Asia. Two young girls in Chennai, on the southeast coast of India, are orphaned and through a series of misfortunes wind up in the hands of traffickers who take them to Bombay. One is forced into prostitution and the other is taken to Paris to be enslaved in an Indian restaurant. Meanwhile, Thomas Clarke is a young lawyer in Washington DC who, for a variety of reasons, leaves DC to work as an intern for an NGO in India that combats trafficking. He takes on the challenge of helping the two girls, and the book is about that effort.

It’s a compelling story. At times, it seems unbelievably gruesome. At other times, one suspects that the author is letting us (and the characters) off easy–the reality must be far worse than what is portrayed here. But reality might make the story unreadable, and as it is the situation is infuriating. Nonetheless, the book exposes a horrifying trade that we should all work to stop. The book makes that abundantly clear.

I don’t want to give away anything about the book’s ending, but I will say I might have made some different choices. Still, it’s a very satisfying read and I recommend it.

2015 Reading: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I’m not sure what to think of this book. On the one hand, I recognize that much of the writing is inspired, if not brilliant. I admire its explorations of class and philosophy and art and language. On the other hand, its two narrators are among the most annoying in all of literature, one for her self-righteous snobbery (toward the upper classes she knows are inferior to her) and the other for her intolerable precociousness. They both grow on you, but not if you throw the book across the room first.

Renée Michel is the long-suffering concierge of a Parisian apartment building occupied by the rich and powerful. Paloma Josse is the young daughter of one of those occupants. Renée grew up poor and has never had the luxury of school, but is an autodidact with eclectic tastes in art, music, cinema, literature, etc. Perversely, though, she feels she must hide her considerable intelligence from the residents of the building, who would not be able to handle the contradiction of a smart concierge. Then there is Paloma, who also thinks she’s too smart for her own good and plots her suicide as a way of punishing all those around her. Eventually, they discover each other (it is Paloma who thinks of the concierge as being solitary and deceptive, with the elegance of the hedgehog) and also come under the influence of a new resident, the wealthy Mr. Ozu. To go much further would be to spoil the plot, so I’ll leave it at that.

I will say, though, that I was not satisfied with the book’s ending. Ending a book is not easy, I realize, and it’s hard to imagine an ending here that would be satisfying. Or maybe the experience of coming to the end of the book is too fresh in my mind to fully appreciate. I might need to think about it more.

In any event, I’m very glad I read this book. (And by read, I mean that I listened to the audiobook—very ably performed—and also skimmed the text, which was helpful to be able to visualize the French names throughout.)

2015 Reading: Unpacking the Boxes by Donald Hall

unpackingUnpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall

Over the years I have read an occasional Donald Hall poem, but I can’t say I’m familiar with his work. But he appeared on a recent cover of Poets & Writers, so I thought it was time I corrected that. While looking for his work in the poetry section of a used bookstore, I came across this book, one of his memoirs. That seemed like a good place to start, so I bought it.

The book is fascinating. It has a dual beginning—Hall’s early interest in poetry as a boy and then the triggering of his memories as an older man returning to New Hampshire, unpacking the boxes.

After a couple of years in a public high school, he moves on to Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard and then Oxford, mingling with some of the 20th Century’s most important poets. He drops their names, but it doesn’t feel like name dropping because he is increasingly becoming one of them. He goes into some depth about his stays at Harvard and Oxford, presumably because these were so important to his development, but he breezes over his first marriage—too painful?—and his second, to Jane Kenyon, which he has written about elsewhere. (Interesting: the book he has written about their marriage was originally the middle section of what became this book, but it was extracted and expanded.)

The chapter I found most interesting, though, has least to do with poetry. The last chapter, “The Planet of Antiquity,” deals with what it is like for him to be getting old. And the book was published seven years ago, so he’s only that much older now.

Having come to know him a little through this book, I look forward to reading his poetry.