Cocky author writes a book #cbr6

The book is hard to write about without giving away some of the plot. Because that is the main attraction of the book, I’ll try not to reveal much. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was written by Joël Dicker, a Swiss writer, and won the 2012 Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise. The French apparently LOVE this book. I thought it was fine when reading, but after a week of thinking about it … well…9780143126683_custom-eefd5935dbbad9ac94e138162eb68bde28d24bcb-s6-c30

Two stories are interwoven throughout the book. The first is a young successful author’s attempt to write his second great novel. While he’s trying to write and consistently failing he visits an old college professor and friend in a small New England town to help him “find his story”. In the meantime, his friend becomes the primary suspect in a decades old murder after a young woman’s bones are found in his yard (they are found while digging up an area for some bushes, which made me wonder how far you have to dig in the ground for bushes, but whatever). This brings in the second story of the the fifteen year old girl’s disappearance and, surprise!, her statutory rape-tinged romance with the author’s friend (hello, pedobear!). The author decides to help his former professor, because obviously he isn’t guilty if he was in love with the 15 year old, and in the process ends up writing his next great novel based on the case.

The book is definitely a decent mystery with a thousand twists and turns in the plot. The twists aren’t that hard to see coming though, and you realize that basically everyone in this small New England town is guilty of something, everything. It reminded me so much of some film or TV show I’ve seen where basically everyone ends up trying to kill a guy who is already dead (If you can think of what the show is, let me know). There are actual clues to what is happening in the story, which is kind of clever, but made me think I was making up a different story in my head while I was reading (keep a close eye on the mother).

In the US its translation has been getting mixed reviews. On Goodreads people seem to either LOVE IT or HATE IT. Admittedly, there were two things about this book I started to hate. First he begins his chapters with cliched writing advice (from the professor to the author), most of which sounds like it came from the pages of The Artist’s Way (writing is like boxing and more blah, blah, blah). Also, for whatever reason Dicker sets the novel during the 2008 Presidential primaries. I can’t really understand why except that he wants characters to spout off random inane political comments. Purpose? Maybe to show that this is a truly American novel. Or to make it more realistic? I did hear a lot of inane political commentary in that period. Anyway, it just seems misplaced and a waste of words.

But in the end, I thought the book was fine. Despite the main character’s over the top confidence in his abilities and tendency to mansplain to everyone (even male cops), I enjoyed the story. It is a good page-turner, but at the end of the day so are Dan Brown’s books (which is why I curse myself the entire time I’m greedily reading those dumb dumb books). And at least Dan Brown doesn’t have the pretension of being, you know, award-winning literature.

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Serena Serena

Serena is one scary, scary woman. serena

I loved Serena by Ron Rash except on the nights after binge reading when I woke up from nightmares about jaguars and eagles and death. Yeah, not so much fun that. This book is not for the faint of heart. It is a brutal story, but not one that feels gratuitous like Game of Thrones can at times (After watching the Red Wedding I felt completely punk’d, but that’s a story for another day). It is a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense and, beyond its literary allusions, it is a gripping story.

Set in the Depression era North Carolina mountains, it is the story of a timber empire led by Serena and her new husband, Pemberton, and their machinations to become the most powerful (and frightening) couple in the forest. In so doing they compete with interests that would like to preserve the forests, as well as the surrounding impoverished community that is simultaneously beholden to the Pembertons for income and repulsed by their brutality. From the literary angle, there is a Greek chorus timber crew that comments on the action throughout while simultaneously trying to survive under horrific conditions (cold, falling limbs, death) where nature is an adversary and rarely a friend.

While it is almost impossible (for me at least) to relate to Serena, her husband is a much more sympathetic character. When he attempts to help his illegitimate child, he unfortunately stirs the ire of Serena, which leads the plot to its closing. At the same time that I can’t relate to her as a character, I absolutely loved reading this book and count it as one of my recent favorites. I can’t image Jennifer Lawrence as Serena in the upcoming film, but I will definitely be one of the first to see it. Here’s hoping it’s as good as the book.

Geological love story

Considering all the earthquake talk and stories about animals fleeing Yellowstone (but not really), I figured now would be a good time for a review of Simon Winchester’s A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great California Earthquake of 1906.

I admit that I sometimes like to read disaster nonfiction (I don’t get out enough anymore) and from the title it seems like a disaster story, but it is much more than that. Winchester in good geologist fashion gives you the entire view  of why the earthquake happened and not just a description of its aftermath. Quite frankly it makes the story more engaging if quite a bit longer. It isn’t just death, gore, and destruction, but you feel you’ve learned a few new things along the way.

A Crack in the Edge
Places I never want to live

So, it is the story of the Great California Earthquake of 1906 and its fiery aftermath. To set up that story up though he begins with plate tectonics. (Side note: It KILLS me that plate tectonics was only discovered in the 1960s. I remember learning about it in school and thinking that it was the one science thing that just made sense. When I read Winchester’s Krakatoa I was floored by the fact that it was a recent discovery.)  He then takes a long trip from one edge of the North American plate to the other. He starts in Iceland and moves across North America to California giving science and history lessons along the way. My favorite chapters were actually the social histories of California during the gold rush and in the period before the earthquake, but the science holds up too for the non-scientist.

The closing chapters are of interest considering recent events/news. He visits Yellowstone and talks to some geologists there who are studying the geysers. One of the fun sentences in this chapter is “Yellowstone is thus, on purely statistical grounds, ready for an eruption almost any day.” At least he reaffirms that I don’t want to live anywhere in California, or the west coast, or west of the Mississippi. At least not until I’ve lived a long full life and have made peace with my maker.

Incidentally, this book has one of the best description of dawn I’ve ever read. In his prologue he asks you to imagine watching the earth from the moon as dawn arrives on April 18, 1906, the morning of the earthquake. He says “To the east of the line, all would have been bright and daylight. To the west, an impenetrable dark.” When the earthquake happens it would have been indiscernible from space, a mere shrug of the planet, but on land it was nothing but hell.

Simon Winchester is shaping up to be one of my favorite writers. He deftly creates readable descriptions of difficult scientific ideas while placing the science in the social and historical context. In this book, he is at the top of his game.

 

Cruel Humanitarians

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

In Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism, Margaret Abruzzo examines the contested origins of the idea of humanitarianism by investigating the proslavery and antislavery debates over the meaning of pain. This is an excellent work for understanding not only the intellectual development of the pro and antislavery positions, but also for breaking apart the concept of humanitarianism, to understand it as a contested and not static term.

She begins with a discussion of the role of the Quakers in developing the idea of sinfulness of slaveholders. For them slaveholding was not wrong because it inflicted pain, but because it created a desire for luxury, therefore bringing shame to the community. Over time this morphs into a broader understanding of the sufferer and the role of the community to alleviate suffering. Next, she examines the merging of Scottish moral philosophy with American religion, where indifference to the misery of others is sign of a moral and social breakdown. Both of these cases tend to focus on distant cruelty as the problem and not the immediate issue of slavery. Because of this it becomes much easier to fight “distant cruelties” such as the slave trade than to tackle the slavery issue at home. Finally she presents the proslavery view that argues that slavery was a moral responsibility of the slave owner to the slave, and that life outside of slavery would be harsh and cruel.

This last point is especially critical because proslavery advocates were framing slavery as benevolent (if free, the slaves would suffer, etc), which then nudged the antislavery activists toward using cruelty rhetoric too. Many antislavery activists found this rhetoric problematic because they were wanting to frame slavery in terms of human rights and equality and not in terms of pain and suffering. Because society was not ready or willing to answer those harder questions of equality, cruelty became the dominant discourse. Unfortunately the proslavery rhetoric of slavery as benevolent returns after the Civil War to shape race relations through the “myth of the happy slave” (236).

This is a critical book because it breaks apart the notion of humanitarianism and examines the debate over its meaning. This is significant because “Humanitarianism relies on a facade of self-evidence, the sense that both cruelty and humanness should be instantly recognizable to all people of goodwill” (239). The problem though is that “cruelty allowed whites to criticize slavery without asking tough questions about human rights, racial equality, or African Americans’ place in society” (239). And this problem still exists. We are better able to identify issues of suffering and pain than to deal with the larger questions about justice.

While not a book for everyone, it illuminates issues surrounding the idea of humanitarianism, both in the origin of the idea and in its future application.

America’s destiny … warts included

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right by Anders Stephanson is a short gast-hi-resbook (it almost doesn’t fit the page length for Cannonball Read), but don’t be deceived. It is incredibly dense. It is one of those books that to understand it fully you almost need to read it twice. Nonetheless, if you really want to know more about the origins of manifest destiny and America exceptionalism, this is a perfect starting point.

I am presenting this book to my class on Wednesday and need to work through some thoughts beforehand. So if this review seems disjointed it is because I’m still getting my head around his arguments. Basically he is examining the origins of the ideology of manifest destiny in American thought and political culture. While we can point directly to John O’Sullivan who coined the term in 1845 when he wrote that the role of the US is “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” Stephanson argues that the broader idea of manifest destiny is rooted in the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people.

He then looks at how this religiously rooted ideology develops over time and negotiates expanding US borders. This religious ideology then becomes intertwined with agricultural and industrial capitalism and mutates into a more secular understanding of manifest destiny, but while the national ideology takes on a new character, “the sacred-prophetic impulse never waned” (110). The interesting difference in these two ideologies is that the older religious idea of manifest destiny focused on a predestined future of God’s chosen people, while in the newer ideology will be determined by individual agency.

The most interesting chapter to me is his closing essay where he discusses President Wilson’s time up to the 1990s. He critiques President Wilson’s understanding of the United States’ role as the leader in the world and how that is still infused with a prophetic mission. This translates into a principle of universal right that believes it is always right and sees those who disagree as “inhuman or criminal” (119).

Interestingly he ends in the mid-1990s (the book was published in 1995) and maintains that the difficulty for the US is that it has lost its defining enemy with the end of the Cold War, and therefore “simple concepts super-imposed on simple divisions and simple enemies no longer suffice as basic ideological props of American geopolitics (129).” I would love to see an update to the work in light of the past decade’s events. Have we invented a new enemy in “terrorism” based on our understanding of America’s destiny?

King of the severed hands #cbr6

I am taking a graduate course on the history of human rights (yes, for the fun of it) and hope to write book reviews (depending on time). If you are interested you can see those reviews under the human rights tag. More to come.

Monument in Arlon. It says "I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilisation and for the good of Belgium." CC 2.0 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Monument_%C3%A0_L%C3%A9opold_II_.jpg
Monument in Arlon. It says “I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilization and for the good of Belgium.” (cc 2.0 by Olnnu)

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is one of those books I always wanted to read, but had trouble getting around to. Honestly you know it isn’t going to be an “easy” book, so it was difficult to make the time. When I saw it on our supplemental reading list as a book on which I could give a required presentation, I jumped on it. I’m very glad I did.

This work describes King Leopold II’s land grab of the Congo River area during the scramble for Africa of the late 19th century, which led to the deaths of 8 to 10 million Africans, the destruction of their societies, and the devastation of the area’s wild rubber plants. Each chapter takes on a different character or episode through the history. Starting with Stanley’s quest to find Livingstone and journeying through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hochschild does a fabulous job telling this brutal story through the eyes of people who lived it. He also tries as much as possible to bring African voices into the narrative. Of course this is not easy considering the oppression of the regime and the lack of historical interest in those voices.

Along with other books in our class, Hochschild points out Leopold II’s need to couch his colonial conquest in humanitarian terms. (Polemical Pain, which I will review later, makes a similar argument using the American pro-slavery rhetoric). Of course this “humanitarian effort” is patronizing, based on “moral uplift”, scientific progress, and stopping the Arab slave trade. To do this Leopold creates a Geographical Conference in 1876 and humanitarian shell organizations. All of these efforts are used to bolster his ambitions to create his colony in Africa.

Ultimately though, the story’s main focus are the people who tried to bring attention to the brutal regime in the Congo, including George Washington Williams, E.D. Morel, Reverend William H. Sheppard, and Sir Roger Casement. In various ways all of them contributed to what Hochschild calls the first international human rights movement of the 20th century. It is humbling to read about the sacrifices each one of them made to bring attention to the brutality of Leopold’s colony. While it is the Africans who suffered, these people gave up quite a bit, in some case their lives, to stop that suffering.

The only major criticism is that Hochschild’s tendency to psychoanalyze his characters can be a bit much. He describes Stanley as “one part titan of rugged force …; the other a vulnerable, illegitimate son of the working class.” King Leopold II whom for good reason he is much less kind seems like a ball of evil enveloped in aristocratic clothing. While it makes the book more readable, he never goes into enough depth about their psychology (except maybe Stanley) to understand their motivations. Statements like — “the adventurers who carried out the European seizure of Africa were often not the bold, bluff, hardy men of legend, but restless, unhappy, driven men, in flight from something in their past” — feel trite and cliched in comparison to the weighty history he is describing. Instead, I would prefer that he stick to contextualizing their actions in the society, economics, and culture of the day than to try to “understand the man.” But, psychoanalysis makes for more engaging popular history. 

My minor criticism is that I would have loved more maps … or any maps. Granted I can grab my phone and google the Congo River, but I love a good map to guide me along. I wish more authors could appreciate that. Hochschild is an excellent narrator who describes the surroundings well enough to imagine, but any work with such a strong connection to geography needs some maps.

This is an important work and required reading for anyone interested in colonialism, human rights or Africa. While it isn’t an easy topic, Hochschild is a kind narrator and writes extremely well. Don’t wait like I did; just go ahead and read it!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton #cbr6

Oh my word. I have no idea where to begin with The Luminaries. It is amazingly complex, overwhelming, and a readable mystery all at the same time. I finished this 800 page tome and wondered what the heck I had just experienced. I’m not sure if that is a criticism or a compliment.

Set in Gold Rush era New Zealand of the 1860s, it begins with a young man’s arrival to a small back water town on the south island. Relaxing in a hotel lounge, he happens across a furtive gathering of 12 men from a mix of backgrounds, classes, and races, all reflecting the typical characters drawn by the lure of gold. They proceed to tell him a perplexing and entangled mystery about love, betrayal, lost gold, vengeance, and death.

The difficulty of the story is that they are each telling their version (or piece) of the tale. No one in this novel can tell you exactly what happened; they can only give their snapshots. So the text can move slowly at times. You read a couple hundred pages and realize you haven’t gotten far in comprehending the story. By the time I reached the end I had almost stopped caring … almost.

Another issue I had is that there are many characters and several of the voices get lost (or I just mixed them up). There is the young man (Moody), the 12 men in the lounge all who play a side part, and then the 7 primary characters around whom the story mainly revolves. Some of the 12 are really well defined characters with interesting perspectives, especially Tom Balfour, Moody, and Aubert Gascoigne, but the rest blend together in Victorian man character-ness. The two women, Lydia and Anna, stand out much more, however, which is good because they are strong and interesting characters. Overall, though, it seems like the number of characters is more a technique than a necessity.

And speaking of technique, a review must mention the structure of the book, which Catton bases on astrology. There I mentioned it … because lord knows I didn’t get it. For a concise explanation see Elizabeth Knox’s launch speech. The part that makes sense is that each chapter is half the size of the previous. According to Knox, this leads to momentum in the story. Yeah. Well. So does reading a griping story.

Anyway, fabulous historical and literary fiction and certainly worth the time needed to finish it. The story and characters are engaging even if you don’t know a thing about astrology. I may still think TransAtlantic should have won the Man Booker Prize, but I concede this was a special book of 2013.