Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book review: John Adams


Book review: John Adams
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001
751 pages

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you don’t think the biography is the best way to do history. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a reason to change your mind a bit.


John Adams is simply a really good book. McCullough helps you to warm up to the man and to his personal experience in leading the Revolution and the first formative years of the American republic. 

Adams, our first vice president and second president, was among the few who were in the thick of it from the beginning, and he never shrank from doing what he expansively viewed as his duty to his new country.


McCullough’s prose is a delightful experience for the serious historian and the armchair dabbler who likes a good read. From cover to cover, this is a lush, genuine presentation of a man, his loved ones, his career, his commitment to do good works and his never-flagging appreciation that the object of government should be to do the people’s business and make possible a decent life for all.



John Adams was savaged by the earliest manifestations of partisan party politics, but he never stooped to play that game.

Too bad we don’t have someone like John Adams in a leadership role today.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter
Introduction by Dr. Joan E. Cashin
M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, New York, 1996
191 pages

This is a workmanlike treatment of a subject that is a hardly imaginable foundation of early America: slavery.

It’s more a documentary than any modern understanding of a novel. Brown does a good job of character development for a limited cast of characters, including Clotel, the “mulatto” daughter of a black slave mother and a white father. The story of many aspects of slavery—disruption of families, cruelty of masters, the abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.
  

Clotel is a high impact read. Brown was born a slave in Kentucky circa 1818. He escaped, became an abolitionist and a writer in England, and was purchased by friends and freed in the middle of the 19th century. He published Clotel in 1853 as the first “novel” written by a black American.

It isn’t good reading. It’s harsh reading. It’s a terribly candid condemnation of a despicable fact of American history. It’s a catalog of shame and endurance and human spirit.

By the way, the subtitle acknowledges Brown’s unabashed reference to the story, well known in the mid-19th century, that Thomas Jefferson dallied with his slave, Sally Hemings, and had children with her.

Here are a couple items:

Prof. Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had some white ancestry.”1 Too many white owners forced themselves on their female slaves. In some parts of the South, a person with white lineage except for a black great-great-great-great grandmother could legally be sold as a slave.

Brown underscores the hypocrisy of slave owners who professed political, philosophical or religious convictions that were nominally opposed to slavery. For example, Brown states that in the middle of the 19th century, more than 660,000 slaves  were owned “by members of the Christian church in this pious democratic republic.”2

Slavery died hard. Writers like Brown helped to make it happen.

1 -  p. xiii
2 -  p. 187







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States



Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014

This is a book about the history of the United States, and the concurrent histories of the indigenous peoples who lived in North America before there was a “United States.” Surely you already know, deeply or vaguely, that these are violent histories of conflict, betrayal and subjugation.



Full disclosure: this is not an easy book. If you are an American historian or a student of American history, you should read it. Don’t expect to enjoy it. Dunbar-Ortiz frankly admits that she had “grave misgivings” about her mandate to “write accessibly so it would engage multiple audiences.”  She uses the word “genocide” a half dozen times in the first few pages, and repeatedly thereafter, and this sets a tone for the entire book.





Here are selected chapter sub-headings—they’re not a representative sample, but they are illustrative:
  • White Supremacy and Class
  • Roots of Genocide
  • Settler-Parasites Create the Virginia Colony
  • Career Building Through Genocide
  • The Genocidal Army of the West
  • Greed is Good
  • North America is a Crime Scene
Dunbar-Ortiz concludes by endorsing a Native American historian’s observation that “…while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.” The author argues for “honoring the treaties…restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks…[restoring] all stolen sacred items and body parts…payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations.”

That is a conclusion of historic proportions that engages multiple audiences. Dunbar-Ortiz had grave misgivings before she wrote this book. I think many readers will feel the same.







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brokeback Mountain


Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal
Director: Ang Lee
Won Oscars for Directing, Music and Writing/Screenplay



Based on the short story by Annie Proulx, screenplay by Larry McMurtry

Here's the big bad spoiler: it's a love story. It has cowboys. And scenic mountains. What could be more all-American?





The love positively erupts, it's a stunning revelation, there is gentleness later, and disappointment that can't be contained. There is real love, you cannot be in doubt about that, and there are the hobbling constraints that Jack and Ennis cannot overcome.

In the end, there is a bloodied shirt that is a delicate memento linking Ennis to Jack, a painfully impotent manifestation of the many wounds they bore, and inflicted on each other.

In the end, there is a big empty space where love should be, but too many precarious opportunities have already passed by.

p.s. Ditto for Annie’s book








Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
By Charles Mann
2011, Vintage Books

Everything you never knew about civilized people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and killed most of them (OK, many died in battle, but it was European diseases, mostly). Maybe close to 100 million "native" people died within 100 years or so of the "discovery" by Columbus…..but hold on, this book is not about Wounded Knee-type criticism or ex post facto self-flagellation.

Mann beautifully describes the marvelous sophistication of cultures, cities, agriculture, arts and science that blossomed in North America, Central America, and South America thousands of years ago, in many cases predating achievements and growth and civilization in Europe. Yes, the Incas never used the wheel except for children's toys. And yes, the Mississippian city of Cahokia was a bustling port and a trading center with population equal to Paris in France---and that was 500 years before Columbus sailed.

Beautiful downtown Cahokia
And yes, there were grand cities in the Americas before there was pyramid-building in Egypt. And yes, the Olmec culture in what is now Mexico invented the zero whole centuries before mathematicians in India did the same.

My recollection of learning about the history of the Americas is that the dates and events were tied to discovery and conquest and colonization by Europeans. The implication was that, before the white men with guns, germs and steel arrived, nothing much was going on in whole continents characterized more by "virgin land" and "endless wilderness" than by people who had agriculture, city life, art, trade, commerce, religion, science, kings and philosophers.

For me, the joy of reading this book is learning about the multiplicity of cultures that flourished in the Americas, and learning how they tamed and managed and very greenly conserved their environment…and for me, the sad revelation of this book is understanding that the peoples of the Americas were human beings whose achievements were noble and notable, and yet, lamentably, their legacies are largely lost and the losses are barely mourned.

In 1533 Pizarro and his conquistadors at Cuzco precipitated the decline of the 300-year-old Inca empire in Peru. Fifty years later, the Spanish colonial administrators in Peru ordered the burning of all the Incan "khipu" knotted string records because they were "idolatrous objects." Khipu were the Incas' only form of writing. The smoke from the burning of the books gets in your eyes, forever and ever.

Khipu knotted strings



Charles Mann's website:    http://www.charlesmann.org/Book-index.htm

Some other book reviews:







Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The wisdom of L. P. Hartley


"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

L. P. (Leslie Poles) Hartley (1895–1972)

This is the celebrated first line of the "The Go-Between," Hartley's novel of Victorian romance and deception published in London in 1953. It can mean whatever you make of it.




I take it as an admonition….one must try to be aware of the unique and partly (perhaps completely) inaccessible context that framed the actions and outlooks of those who did things we think we're interested in…it's not easy to think and feel as the Romans did…














The 1970 movie with Julie Christie and Alan Bates is a genuinely throbbing, set-your-teeth-on-edge rendition of the book…give either of them a try.














Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.