Books for Readers # 188
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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family Annette Gordon-Reed
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It is the story of the descendents of enslaved woman whose children were half siblings of Thomas Jefferson's wife, and then Jefferson himself had children with one of those siblings, after his wife's death. It is about the complexity of family relationships, the paternalism of Jefferson, and about how most of Jefferson's "people" were sold off because of his overwhelming debts after he died. It is a book that was possible because of the unusual recording of the doings of the Hemingses, unlike the vast majority of enslaved people. It is about how Sally Hemings (Jefferson's wife's half sister) and her older brother James were in Paris with Jefferson and might have left him there for freedom, but both in the end made deals with him. James eventually received his freedom, and Sally extracted a promise from Jefferson that if she became his bed mate and help meet, he would free any children they had.
She carried seven children for him, of whom four lived to adulthood. Two of these were never officially freed, but were light enough in color that the best chance for them was to be sent quietly into life a white people, completely out of touch with their families. Two others were granted freedom as black people. The book is also about Jefferson's ambivalence about slavery, his white family's closed doors on his relationship to Sally, and about the the vicious public attacks on Jefferson and Hemings from newspapers and others. Gordon-Reed speculates brilliantly about whether or not true affection and even love might or might not be possible between slave and enslaver. She writes powerfully and marshals her extensive sources with deceptive ease.
The saddest part of the history is Jefferson's financial ruin at the end of his life, and how few of the people who served him were given freedom. Some of the extended Hemings family managed to buy each other and live locally, but many others continued in slavery. The book offers a look at American chattel slavery that comes about as close to the lives of actual enslaved people as any documentation I've ever read, and of course, we have to remember that these were very special enslaved people: many if not most of them were half or more white (Jefferson's children were three quarters white), and most of them were blood relations of Jefferson's white children.
What a world that was. Not as likely to cause climate change disaster as ours, but equally disastrous for the individuals caught up in slavery.
Believe What You Can by Marc Harshman...
...is a wide ranging, rich collection of his poetry, organized around several threads: first is nature (he grew up on a farm and lives in northern West Virginia): there are deer and doves like the ones who "with a thudding whinny, they spring, and lift, and fly." (p. 85), as well as a plethora of precise observations that he tosses off in quantity, with ease, and always hitting his target.
Nature poems blend seamlessly into farm life, including a powerful prose poem in which Uncle Elmer tenderly encounters his wife's corpse and then calls on the young narrator to sit with the body until the undertaker comes, while he, Elmer, goes back to making hay. This piece, "Aunt Helen" (p.75), is a story on the surface, but ends with one of Harshman's many interrogations of God.
The answers Harshman derives tend toward a Buddhist emphasis on this present moment, these things around us. One lovely poem called "Monastery" tells how the brothers dug vegetables and listened for God and without any effort God came and sang for them in a wren suit (80). That's a Christianity this world could really use.
But I think the series of poems that surprised me most were the war poems. There are a number of damaged returned soldiers, including one who may be Harshman's father or some other veteran of the allegedly good war-- a veteran whose son is a poet who uses the word "Fuck" in a poem (p. 50). This poem, like several others, creates a character and tells a story, and Harshman's ability to do this without weakening the rigor of the language is a wonder.
Finally, there are a number of poems of nightmare or perhaps horror like "Where No One Else Can Go," in which a little girl with "a fistful of white violets" is left inside "the screaming house." It's pretty searing, and somehow adds to the sense that not only are American veterans traumatized, but so are ordinary middle-Americans. (p. 35)
This collection shows Harshman, the poet laureate of West Virginia, at the height of his powers, reaching out, reaching in, without melodrama, without posing, but with passion and apprehension of the mysteries.
The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
This late novel of Rebecca West is is long and sometimes a little meandering and a little too indulgent of its precocious English children and their eccentric parents, but it is definitely worth taking the time to settle in and read. Rebecca West isn't read as much today as perhaps she ought to be. She is often remembered as the lover of H.G. Wells and the mother (with Wells) of Anthony West. There were a lot of fireworks in both relationships.
In this novel, she remembers and fictionalizes her birth family at 50 years distance in time. The family are all artists and intellectuals; the brilliant, deeply selfish father has trouble keeping a job and gambles any money he gets on the stock exchange. The mother is an astonishing musician, disheveled, opinionated, and charming. She was a concert pianist who stopped to marry and is making pianists of the narrator Rose and her twin sister Mary.
The story begins when the girls are maybe seven or eight, at a good moment for the family when their father finally gets a job as a writer-editor for a suburban London paper. It runs roughly chronologically until the father leaves the family, when the girls are in their teens. Music is discussed at great length, and musicality is a high family value. One of the most difficult problems for Clare the mother and Rose and Mary is that the older sister insists on being a performing violinist when, the others are convinced, she can't play and doesn't understand music. The fourth child, the baby brother whom everyone likes best, is one of those boys who can do anything– juggle, play many instruments– but is also a genius with making people feel comfortable.
Gender is significant, too, as West, a self-declared feminist, looks at how extremely talented women fared in middle class British life in the early 1900's. The father, Piers, unapologetically sells beloved furniture without asking his wife, and Clare never complains, and is in fact conscience-struck on the rare occasions when she makes some choice, usually financial, that favors her children over her husband. He, meanwhile, writes a monograph on the future of the world that essentially predicts the fall of the Austrian Empire and the rise of Hitler. The dramatic heart of the novel is when the family gets involved in the murder of the father of a schoolmate of the girls, and Piers exhausts himself lobbying friends in Parliament to save the murderer– the dead man's own wife,
There is an occasional appearance of the paranormal, notably a battle with a poltergeist that brings Clare's best friend and her daughter into the family circle. Often things are told lightly, with an almost obtuse optimism, but it ends with a long, extraordinarily moving scene the day after Piers leaves when the remaining family members go to the botanic gardens and eat sandwiches in front of a special flower that blooms only briefly. It's hard to capture the tone of the scene, but it is, in spite of a slowness that is never heavy, and in spite of the poltergeist, a well structured narrative with many pleasure and a true re-creation of childhood and adolescence in a private world where art and kindness are the highest values.
The King in the Stone by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban
Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban's novel The King in the Stone is a romance- fantasy with very serious themes. It includes both time travel and travel to other worlds–I didn't read the previous book in the series, so I'm not absolutely clear on how these movements through time and space are effected, but Ferreiro-Esteban always keeps the present of her story sharply in focus, so there is no confusion.
Here, Andrea and her love Julián (who take turns with the point of view) come across as easy-to-identify-with young people in their late teens or early twenties. Andrea in particular seems very modern and has made a decision that she wants to stay in our contemporary world, where she believes she will have more freedom. Julián, who has been a warrior and a king, has more trouble with contemporary customs. For example, he sees Andrea in the room of a male friend, and promptly breaks off their engagement.
Mourning the loss of Julián's love (she believes), Andrea goes off on an archaeological dig to Spain. There are multiple misunderstandings between the lovers: repeatedly they find one another, recognize their love, are parted by circumstances or more misunderstandings (usually when they see the other with a potential lover). There is a kind of ritualistic movement in this, and you come to expect these waves and troughs that carry us through the story. The reader always trusts, though, that the couple will eventually be together.
What I liked best about this book, though, was the way it breaks from the simple love story with a family theme, and all the parts about Spanish history. Both Andrea and Julián are descendants of early rulers of Spain from the time of the original Arab conquest– long before the Spanish empire in the Americas and long before the reconquest by los reyes católicos, Isabella and Ferdinand. One driving plot element is the mystery of who is the early medieval king whose stone image they find on the mountains?
This is an energetic story with lots of momentum and deep emotions woven into the fabric.
Noir by Ken Champion
This is a small book with great depth. The main character, Vincent, is one of Champion's gripping working class men who have achieved a university education. He is at once highly perceptive and intelligent and angry at a world that doesn't allow him to integrate his class roots with his present world view. Vincent loves the architecture of London, the bricks and windows and skylines. He is also fascinated by the period of the second world war, and indeed he first sees Gail dressed in a period costume and begins to fall for her. Part of their love making is often acting out scenarios of various types in an attempt to grasp the mysteries of time and place.
Vincent is also a university level teacher of sociology, mostly to what he calls "mature" students, many of whom are African immigrant women. His goal with his students is to teach them to question-- not only to believe (many of them are religious by culture), and he is apparently very popular with them, although his insights into who they are, and his tendency to speak truth as he sees it in all situations, gets him sacked from his job.
He hates what we call in the States political correctness, and also hates people eating on trains and riding bicycles on the sidewalks. There is a crisis, after his affair with Gail falls apart, when he acts with petty but vicious violence on the perpetrators of such petty actions. He is a dark, clever, and quirky man, and one who bounces back from even his own excesses. Gail is in the end too conventional for him--she demands communication and talking, whereas he is an inveterate avoider and repressor.
The ending, as far as plot goes, is a surprise in the way real life is a surprise-- things happen, there are coincidences, their meaning is doubtful at best. Vincent goes on, teaching in a new place, living his life in his peculiar way.
It's an unusual book, tight and surprising. Even though the material of it is meals in restaurants and contemporary mores and corruptions of culture, there is a surprise on almost every page. Clothes, the island of Mersea, Cockney accents, striving immigrants-- you feel the life in it, and forgive poor Vincent, human that he is, for loving it all but only understanding in part.
Other Reviews (by MSW unless noted)
Phyllis Wilson Moore Reviews Bertram Wallace Korn's American Jewry and the Civil War: A West Virginia Passover
Unexpected West Virginia stories fascinate me. For example, I never thought of Jewish soldier fighting for the Union here in the wilds of West Virginia, or anywhere else, for that matter. But they did.
AMERICA JEWRY AND THE CIVIL WAR by Bertram Wallace Korn, contains the brief entry regarding a Jewish regiment, The 22nd Ohio Volunteers, wintering in mountainous Fayette, West Virginia.
As the 1862 Passover approached, J. A. Joel and twenty other Jewish soldiers requested permission to be relieved of duty for the several days required to observe Passover. Request granted, the men set out to locate the needed foods and symbols for the observation. They had Matzo sent from Cincinnati by rail; the sender, a fellow soldier on leave, included Passover prayer-books.
The men foraged for others: two kegs of cider would be uses as a symbol for wine; an entire lamb for the lamb-bone; several chickens and some eggs. They substituted a local bitter weed for the bitter herbs. For the haroseth (a combination of chopped apples, nuts and wine), a symbol for the brick-building in Egypt, the best they could do was to place an actual brick on the table.
In a thrown-together log hut, with conventional items and symbolic one, the twenty men set about solemnly observing the dictates of their faith. Joel, the leader, conducted the service and chanted in the language of Israel.
All went smoothly until time to eat the bitter herbs (usually horseradish). The local weed, perhaps jimson, proved to be fiery as Cayenne pepper, and for some, hallucinogenic. With burning mouths the men hastily drank up all the cider (not just the four cups permitted). The results were not humorous. Soon, one man thought he was Moses, another thought he was Aaron, and one imaged himself a Pharaoh. After a tussle, the three confused men were carried from the camp and those assembled continued with their prayers.
This is a Civil War story of the best kind. Joel, the organizer would later say, "…there is no occasion in my life that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction then when I remember the celebration of Passover of 1862."
I'm fairly sure this is an "only in West Virginia" tale for the ages.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is best known for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and apparently (according the 2014 review of Colorless Tsukuru by Patti Smith in the NYTimes, his masterpiece. Apparently his work is either fantastical and edgy, which Smith seemed to prefer, or a kind of minimalist work like this one. Murakami is said to be considered "unJapanese" by many Japanese, but to me, this had a sensibility that I associate with Japan: a kind of patience and deliberate insistence on savoring experience, which is part of the main character Tsukuru's personality, but also, I would suggest, also part of the culture, particularly the Buddhist-influenced part.
The high value put on a mixed-gender group of teen-age is a fascinating psychological study (consider Donna Tartt's Secret History and Tana French's The Likeness for other views of how such a tight group can be destructive as well as nurturing). Most of the book is about Tsukuru's search for why his friends rejected him. He has a near-psychopathic break down after the rejection and builds a lonely life around railroad stations (which he both loves and works on as a skilled engineer). Slowly he rebuilds his psyche and, stimulated by a new girlfriend, he intensifies his quest through Japan and Finland. Patti Smith points out, since several things are left unresolved, there could be a sequel. I didn't think so, but in any case, found this a refreshingly alien world to visit and experience.
Let the Great World by Spin Colum McCann
This is an excellent contemporary novel that includes many characters and events linked by and centered around the famous tightrope walk by Phillipe Petit between the World Trade Center Towers on August 7, 1974. McCann manages about eleven point of view characters, and each one is amazingly believable except maybe the suicidal prostitute, who is interesting and likable but feels more constructed and less natural that the others. He has two chapters following his fictionalized version of the tightrope walker; a very well done criminal court judge; two two Irishmen, some early computer geniuses in early Silicon Valley who hack into New York city pay phones to place bets on whether the tightrope walker will fall or not.
The book has some of the characteristics of a collection of short stories, but is in fact a real novel because each short piece adds to the total momentum, and each question laid out raises the ante: What is the judge going to do with the tightrope walker? What will happen to the dead prostitute's daughters? And all the questions are answered satisfactorily, strongly.
READERS' RECOMMENDATIONS AND MORE!
Phyllis Wilson Moore often recommends these two poems to people: "Bleeding" by May Swenson and "To A Certain Citizen" by Walt Whitman (when you get to that web page, you have to scroll down for the poem).
Phyllis says, "Swenson has a host of poems I consider special. If you get a chance, check out her 'South Bound on the Freeway;' 'The Centaur,' 'Pigeon Woman'"
Phyllis also writes that she had an idea idea looking for a writer:
"Historical novel anyone? Hint. A white slave owner of the Kawawha Valley set free about 60 of his slaves in 1849 (I think was the year) and sent them off with at least one lawyer and $15,000, plus tools,etc. [Look up Sampson Saunders]. I think it is easy to find facts about this using the net. We also need a novel about the bunker at the Greenbrier and the chaos likely to have happened when the big wheels tried to use it and leave the locals out to die."
READ AND LISTEN ONLINE
Joan Newburger's story "A Bad Day in the Promised Land" just online at Persimmon Tree!
Belinda Anderson is one of "50 Writers from 50 States."
The latest from Barbara Crooker: check the poems added or updated to the "online poems" section of her website: New Online Poems.
Ed Davis on Bob Dylan
Hamilton Stone Editions #35 Fall 2016