For some reason, I never got around to this one until know. Prompted by a report that there were, once again, efforts to get the book removed from a reading list (http://ou.uloop.com/news/view.php/73136/banned-books-for-future-generations), I moved it up my list. If it’s a bit too long at times, it is also a wonderfully evocative and memorable coming-of-age autobiographical novel. Anna Quindlen’s intro is gushing and on target. There’s not a lot of plot here. But that’s okay. Smith does am amazing job of making small details meaningful and all of the characters well-rounded. But Quindlen undersells Smith’s writing. Though descriptions and especially dialogue are occasionally mawkish, the power of larger scene (and ‘scene’ is the right word here – there is definitely a cinematic quality to Smith’s writing) more than balances things out. She is especially nimble when it comes to point of view and taking time to have characters express thoughts that are often very different from their spoken words.

As for the scene that is almost certainly at the center of the controversy, I can’t believe that it would prevent anyone from reading or teaching the novel. Any concerns about that moment are overwrought. Smith handles it well, in a manner that makes the situation both realistic and appropriate for Francie’s perspective on the situation. I’d be just fine with this book for ages 12 and up. If someone younger wanted to read it, I’d have a hard time saying no. I’d be impressed with their perseverance.

And there’s a movie version. Has anyone seen it?

This biography (according the the New York Times blurb on the front it’s a “richly imaginative biography” – what does that even mean?) of the the father of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo is compelling. Reiss uses Dumas (the father) as a kind of emblematic symbol of France’s remarkable changes during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Bankrupted by their support of the American Revolution, France begins an at times reckless exploration of various forms of government and revolution that mark Dumas’ rise and ultimate fall during Napoleon’s second act.

In order to sustain his narrative, Reiss has to provide a fair amount of supporting context, including, for example, France’s abolitionist spirit, the Haitian Revolution, and Napoleon’s machinations. Some of these diversions are more interesting than others, but the narrative in variably suffers when the noble Dumas is not at center stage.

Reiss clearly admires his subject a great deal and laments, in the end, that there is no statue of him currently in France. He seems to have been a remarkable soldier, an ethical man (in a time when the wind was constantly changing) and, to the best of his abilities, a strong family man. Aside from a bit of a temper, Reiss finds no flaws with Dumas, a black man who flourished at a time that was transformative (in both good and bad ways) in the history of France. And his race does matter. It is symbolic of the changing winds in France that he, deeply devoted to his country, succeeded because of his aptitude and courage in his military career and then was finally diminished because of his race.

It’s always funny with biographies. Just as reading Baldwin’s biography prompted me to think about reading more of his work, this one has me thinking about The Three Musketeers. But it’s too soon, I think.

This is a good book. Pulitizer Prize worthy? I’m not so sure.

 

We used to have a landlady who prided herself (wrongly, more often than not) on coming up with pithy one sentence reviews of plays. She was desperate to be quoted. I am going to take that same chance here.

In her efforts to make this book accurate, Napoli forgot one thing; she forgot to make it good. She clearly did her research – some on her own family, more, she says in a postscript, from histories, contemporary magazines and contemporary newspapers. She clearly learned a lot about sandwiches. How do I know? Because she shares a great deal with us. Don’t get me wrong. I like sandwiches. But this section absolutely torpedoed the already glacial pace of this novel.

There is also no nuance when it comes to her characters. They can be seen a mile away. The gruff storekeeper with the heart of gold. The tough kid who has a secret. The changes in the protagonist are not at all credible. Even the ending, despite one mild and welcome surprise (which I won’t spoil) is utterly predictable.

I’ve never taken so long to get through 240+ pages of young adult fiction. What a chore.

This was a challenging book. It’s hard for me, with my own particular bias, to say whether it’s balanced. It’s certainly ambitious and detailed. There are many moments for consideration, more because of the context of living in a such a place as a resident (and not a tourist) than because of the art. I’m not an experienced reader of graphic novels, so perhaps some of Delisle’s choices eluded me.

I like that he is an adventurous narrator and don’t mind that he portrays himself as a clod. But winging his presentations and consistently including images that he had to know were likely objectionable to the given audience? Well, that just seems unnecessarily provocative. And his remarks about being a housewife? (His wife, who works for Doctors with Borders, has been posted there for a year.) Again, here he crosses the line between cloddish and sexist.

So, it’s an engaging and challenging read. I’d be interested to read it again and to discuss it with others. Would I use it in a classroom? Very hard to say. I doubt it.

http://www.guydelisle.com/english/index_en.html

Sometimes, I feel like the sole ambassador for Barry Unsworth. I think he’s a remarkable author of what some call historical fiction. (I just call it fiction.) This is a layered novel centered on layered activity – archaeology – and as the dig proceeds, treasures, characters, and conflicts are literally and figuratively unearthed. If at times Unsworth spends too much time on ancient history or archaeology, it didn’t bother me too much. I mostly blurred through those section.

Unsworth is masterful with point of view here, shifting at times from one character to the other in a remarkably controlled and meaningful manner – at times in the same paragraph.

The tension builds quietly and definitely and leads to an ending that can only be described as tragic. And layered.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford points out that we have passively accepted a disposable society. Planned obsolescence has become the default. We don’t mind because most of us don’t know how to fix things or do much with our hands. Besides, things are made so cheaply (and elsewhere) these days, that it has become easier and cheaper to replace them.

Kevin Bales applies much of that thinking to some of the makers of those things. He said in his new preface that he regrets calling what is going on today the “new” slavery, and I can see his point. It is not so much that what he reports on is new; it is more that it has evolved. He uses case studies in Thailand, Brazil and elsewhere (notably, not the United States, though there are some brief references to its existence here) to make his point. His research is methodical (as is, unfortunately, his writing) and persuasive. If he reaches for the overly dramatic phrase too often, it is an honest bit of overreaching. He wants us to feel and be as passionate about the abolition of slavery as he is. He is the unpaid director of Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net) and his royalties from this surprisingly expensive book ($33 for a paperback!) go to various anti-slavery projects.

My first struggle with this book was a structural / philosophical one. Much in the manner of academics – and appropriately so, I think – Bales has articulated a pattern or system that has prompted the evolution of slavery. Like the things Crawford writes about, people have become disposable. Slaves are easily replaced. The global economy, whose praises we so often sing, has accelerated this process. Profit drives everything, including the police. Where, Bales implies (he could do more here), has all of the moral leadership gone?

Given this attention to the steps in the process (which show up in all of the case studies to varying degrees), I wondered why he chose to organize his chapters around places (rather than these steps). He wants us to recognize the steps in order to interrupt them, but having chapters on places makes it seem like slavery is a problem for other people in other places.

In order to eradicate slavery, he wants us to focus just on slavery. I understand the need to focus and I accept the argument (and not just because it is the day it is) that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I also accept his argument that we should not dilute the power of a word like ‘slavery’ as slave holders are trying to do (“bonded labor,” “attached labor,” etc.). Consider how we reference the Holocaust.

That said, I think Bales overlooks the notion of what I understand as intersectionality. He notes that there are no straight lines anymore, that there is often a layer of managers between the one who own and the ones who manage slaves. He advocates for the equivalent of the eco-detective when it comes to rooting out slavery.

How we can develop the narrow focus he seeks until we’ve examined its underpinnings both in other places and at home? As Alice Goffman’s troubled and troubling book On the Run makes quite clear, we have our own form of “debt bondage” here in the United States. How can we develop moral leadership unless we take care of our own structural problems first? Reading, Frederick Douglass learned early on, makes people unfit to be slaves, but now students are choosing not to read (while Malala gets shot for going to school). Bales points to example after example of how illiteracy and innumeracy are a step toward enslavement. Shouldn’t we be more concerned that we seem to have reached the more sophisticated form of slavery here – where students are choosing to enslave themselves? We also need to take seriously the question of bail, for example. How is it that we continue to allow people to languish in jail because they are poor? If we don’t work on ourselves first, wouldn’t our efforts to free prostitutes in Thailand (though urgently needed) come from a place of moral superiority or smugness? The same is true for the question of transition, and I like Bales’ attention to it. It is not enough, as we ought to know by now, to simply free slaves. They need their 40 acres and a mule and more. But how can we do this without acknowledging Ta-Nehisi Coates’ call for reparations?

This leads me to another issue that I think Bales evades, save for one early example. If another culture deems it appropriate to treat a group one way, are we to judge otherwise? I think so. I think there are such things as universal human rights. But who says my version is the correct one?

This is a very powerful book. At times, it’s overwhelming. I recognize my power as a consumer and try to choose wisely, but such decisions are not as straightforward as Bales suggests. What would happen if I did as Bales suggests with his book? Who made the paper? Who made the building where it was printed?

He is right that I should not let this book just sit on my shelf. I will pass it on.

Sometimes, it can be illuminating to read an author’s work in order, not because the work requires it (as in a series of books), but because it allows you to see the evolution of an author’s voice. I love Ali’s Sky Ward. I found the poems here (published 5 years earlier) more challenging to approach. That said, I believe I can see the seeds of what will become the vivid and layered work in Sky Ward.

From the title forward, there is much to consider here. Much of it, and I mean this literally and figuratively for spacing matters here, seems to be between the lines. With some poking and prodding, I found I could tease out fragments of meaning for myself, but this probably speaks more to my abilities as a reader of poetry than Ali’s work. I do enjoy his questions, his attention to what is I believe called the quotidian as he contemplates things on a grander scale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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