DNF: Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman

First off, is this not a beautiful cover?

Don’t you want this to be a terrific book?  With a cover like this?

It wasn’t the book, it was me.

Most likely.

The books two narratives are well told, it’s two lead characters interesting and three-dimensional.  I just felt I had been down this road before.

In one, an 19th century American engineer has been hired by the British government in Africa to build a section of railroad in what will become Tanzania.  He is the sole white man in a rugged savannah landscape ridden by drought and pestilence and a couple of lions unafraid to attack men. The note at the start of the novel states that the lions are based on historical fact.

In the other plot,  a 20th century ethnobotonist with Aspergers is hired by a pharmaceutical company to search the mountains of Rwanda for a vine that holds promise as a medical treatment.  She is mixed race. He is white.

I guess I’m tired of stories about Africa centered on people from America.  I’m not that interested in the 19th colonization plot, nor its 20th century pharmaceutical equivalent.  These are both serious issues, worthy of novels, just not something I’m interested in anymore.  These days Africans can tell their story.  I think it the exact same story were written from their point of view it would have held my interest longer than the 130 pages I read.

Still, I’m keeping the book since I’ve been collecting these beautiful Europa Editions covers for several years now. I may read the rest of the book someday, when I’m in a more receptive mood.  It was good.

Like I said; it wasn’t the book, it was me.

Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr–Chapter I: Prophetic Patterns 1786-1850

This doesn’t count as a resolution, but on New Year’s Day I finally embarked on reading Kevin Starr’s history of California which currently stands at six volumes, last time I checked.

A few years ago I read his single volume history California and loved it.  Entertaining and informative, a clear eye-ed history of the state written by a man who’s been in love with the place for years.  Kind of like me.

I admit it, I’m a chauvinist.  I love it here.  On my first trip to Europe, the first time I spent the night outside of the United States, a woman selling tourist maps in Dresden asked me if I was from America.  I reflexively corrected her, “I’m from California.” She laughed and pointed at the gray, drizzly sky above.  Why would you leave California for here?

However, like most people in California, I didn’t really know much about the state’s history until I dedicated part of my reading to it.  Quite a few books later, I’m more of an expert than I need to be at least until I retire, move to the gold country and start giving historical walking tours to tourists.  All of which I plan to do someday.

Meantime, I’ve many volumes of Kevin Starr’s history of the state to peruse.  He keeps on writing them, too.

This first chapter is focused on the period when California was part of Mexico. Basically post Mission Period to the Gold Rush. During this time some of the missions were still operating but they were all in their final days.

Some key things I learned:

What the Americans admired about California was also what they condemned about it. During this time there are about 1500 “Europeans” living in California. The Mexican government was never able to convince large numbers of people to immigrate here due to its distance and isolation.  The Californians lived an easy outdoor life according to the written accounts.  There was little work to do since agriculture was so easy. People spent most of their day outdoors, living a largely communal lifestyle.  Wedding parties and other celebrations went on for days.  Races intermingled freely. Class lines were fairly easy to cross.  One Black man, a sailor known only as Bob, jumped ship of the coast,  changed his name to Juan Cristobal, became Catholic, married a local woman and spent out his days as a prosperous land owner.

All of this was both admired and condemned by the Americans who visited California in the first half of the 19th century.  Condemned as a land full of lazy racial mongrels who did not have the enterprize necessary to make California as prosperous as it could be.  They lived comfortable lives along the coast, never bothering to settle the interior which was just waiting for New England farmers with a solid Puritan work ethic to move in and get to work.

Though this was only a brief period of time, a single lifespan is all you need to see the founding of the missions through to their closing, it remains a foundational part of the California mythos.  An agricultural paradise where the living is easy, the people friendly, and the celebrations last for days.

Very early on California figures in the ambitions of the young nation. Secure it and you’ll have a base for trade with Asia making the nation a continental power. Spain, France, Russia and Mexico are all interested as well, attempting to gain a foothold in California’s many harbors.

It’s America with its ethos of Manifest Destiny and its unending stream of migrants heading west that will win out.  The smart money would have bet on it even before gold was discovered.  The Bidwell party arrives in 1841, the first group to make the trip overland.  The Bidwell’s do very well, by the way, even without find gold.

Of course, we should ask about the Native American population.  What happened to the indigenous people is not one of Mr. Starr’s concerns here.  Perhaps this is because the book was first published in 1973, but that’s three years after Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published. Perhaps this is because Mr. Starr’s book is cultural history based on written accounts and other cultural documents which tend to exclude the Native American point of view.  I suspect if he were writing this book today, more space would be devoted to this issue.  He does address pre-contact California in his more recent history California. 

He does point out that while the Mission period was far from an ideal one for Indigenous People, the Americans were the ones who openly put a bounty on Indian lives as a matter of government policy.  A mark of shame on our state and our country.

The Underground Railroad by Colsen Whitehead

Is The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead as good as they say? Does it deserve all the awards and high praise it has been getting, earning the author an interview on every public television and NPR show that still interviews authors?

No.

There, I said it.

It’s a very good book.  I had a very hard time putting it down–ended up reading nearly 200 pages in a single sitting. I think it’s a book I would love to have a serious discussion about with a group of people who know much more than I do about American slavery.

But it has some serious ending problems, in my opinion, including a moment where the heroine simply breaks character to move the action forward.  I couldn’t believe she would do what she does. I won’t say more about that, spoilers, you know. And I found the ending to be rushed overall, too much deus ex machina to make The Underground Railroad as great a novel as everyone else seems to think it is.

Still, I liked it.

I’m going to assume everyone knows the basics, a young woman runs away from the plantation where she has been held as a slave via the underground railroad which is an actual railroad running through a system of tunnels throughout America.

It’s a clever idea, one the author exploits quite well.

Overall the novel is a travelogue as we follow Cora through a series of states where she experiences different ways America has treated Black Americans throughout history. At one point Cora reads a copy of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels which is a good comparison, and a good suggestion of how we should read The Underground Railroad.  Like Gulliver, Cora moves from one very strange society to another as she heads north.  Sometimes the things she experiences are nearly as strange as Lilliput or Brobdingnag.

But I think The Underground Railroad is really a post apocalypse story.  It follows the trajectory commonly found in such tales.  A lone hero, sometimes a group, escape a devastated location. They go through a series of stops.  The first few seem helpful at first, people who try to aid their escape, but things go wrong. They fall into the hands of people they should not trust who turn against them.  They discover what looks like a paradise only to find a dark secret truth about what is really going on. They set up a community which looks like it will make it before it is attacked suddenly and decisively.  Here they either win the battle and rebuild or flee one final time as the book ends.

I think it’s possible to read the history of Black America as a journey through a post apocalyptic landscape. Taking the journey by trains that never leave the tunnel only added to this feeling.

Cora rides the underground railroad three times in the novel.  Each time she is reminded of someone who told her that the only way to truly see what a country  is really like is to see it by rail, so make sure you look out the window when you ride a train.  I think this is anachronistic since rail travel was still relatively new in pre-Civil War America, but I’m willing to set that question aside since such an interesting point was being made here.  All Cora can see when she in on the train is the darkness of the tunnel.  She has no idea where she is going and all around her is darkness.

Is that what America is really like?

While I found that an excellent way to ask this question, it irritated me that it was asked three times.  Once, maybe on the final train ride, would have been enough, maybe on the first ride then just refer to the darkness the other two times. But three times with the same bit.

But I still recommend The Underground Railroad.  It was hard to put down; it does raise very interesting questions.  I appreciate an entertaining book that has something relevant to say. Even if it’s not as great as everyone says.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In Texas, during the years following the Civil War, a 75-year-0ld printer who has lost his business, a casualty of war and its aftermath, travels the western part of the state giving readings from newspapers.  He rides into town, posts notices of his performance, and collects a dime from everyone who attends in an old paint can. All he does is stand in front of the crowd and read a selection of stories from several recent newspapers.

Did this really happen?  Is there historical evidence for such a thing?

There are no mention of this in the  notes from the author at the end of the book and most readers will be more interested in other aspects of this novel, but I hope this really is true.  It could be.  1870 was still the “wild west” in America.  Performances of any kind were almost always welcome in the smaller towns and settlements.  Even today people are willing to pay just to hear other people read something to them.

But for me this was a strange element to find in a western.  I was reminded of Hilary St. John Mandel’s recent novel Station Eleven about a travelling Shakespeare company in a post-apocalyptic future.  Paulette Jiles’s reader travels through a post war Texas facing a series of threats not unfamiliar to readers of dystopian fiction: overly friendly townspeople,  a hostile gang of slave traders, an Indian attack, a dangerous city. The story could easily have become The Postman.

What makes News of the World great are two characters and some wonderful writing.  Besides Captain Kidd, the reader/printer mentioned above, there is Johanna Leonberger, a ten-year-old girl recently “rescued” from the Kiowa tribe who have had her since they kidnapped her at age six.

Johanna is wild, afraid of nearly everything she sees in what to her is a new world.  She remembers almost nothing of her white family.  She wants only to return to the Kiowa whom she considers her family.  It is very difficult for her to trust the white man whom she has been handed over to.

Captain Kidd has taken the job of returning Johanna to her family, an aunt and uncle several hundred miles to the south.  Along the way he and Johanna form a very tight bond. This story, how Johanna comes to trust Captain Kidd and how Captain Kidd comes to see Johanna as a daughter, give News of the World its heart.

I know I tend to get lost in inter-texual linking but I kept thinking of the 1998 Brazilian move Central Station about a bitter retired school teacher who takes an orphaned boy across Brazil to his father’s home.  It’s a wonderful movie by the way.  The performance by Fernanda Montenegro is one of the best you will ever see. She lost the Oscar, by the way, to Gwyneth Paltrow who won it for Shakespeare in Love.

There have been many stories about captive children returned from Native American tribes.  Some date back to just shortly after the arrive of Europeans in North America.  From what I’ve read they all seem to have certain things in common.  The children always adopt the tribe as family.  They forget white culture altogether including their language some in just a few years. They do not want to return to white culture.  They never see their native culture again.  They never completely re-adapt to their families.  I’ve only seen this story in “case studies”–stories about one person both fiction and non-fiction. I’d love to find a broader study on this topic.  Is this pattern the result of differences between how native people live and how white culture at the time lived? Or is it something about the nature of children who experience abduction through extreme violence.  Very often they have seen their parents and siblings killed as was the case with Johanna in News of the World.

I was expecting this story to end badly.  As I got closer to the end I began to fear what would happen to Johanna and to Captain Kidd for that matter.  Over the course of the novel I became very fond of both of them.  All I’ll say here is that there was a happy ending for both, one that was completely believable and satisfying.

Finally, a word about the writing. Not so much a word as a quote.  You can judge for yourself.

She put down the doll and shouted at the Indians with her hands around her mouth.  What could she possible think would happen? That they would come for her? She was shouting for her mother, for her father and her sisters and brothers, for the life on the Plains, traveling wherever the buffalo took them, she was calling for her people who followed the water, lived with every contingency, were brave in the face of enemies, who could go without food or water or money or shoes or hats and did not care that they had neither mattresses nor chairs nor oil lamps. They stood and stared across the water at her like creatures of the sidhe, wet and shining in every flash from overhead. They stood among their jack strawed tipi poles heaped on horses, drenched children gazing at her out of buffalo robes on the travois, the men ahead and at the side with their weapons wrapped in whatever would keep them dry.  One of them shouted back over the water. The lightning made them appear in every detail like an intaglio and then disappear and the reappear again.

I’ve gone on about News of the World long enough.  I loved it.  Go read it it.

Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe by William Rosen

Some things I learned from reading William Rosen’s book Justinian’s Flea:

  • Justinian I was as unlikely to become emperor as Theodora was to become empress.
  • Theodora really did work in a brothel, most likely, but she had retired prior to meeting Justinian in her early twenties. That bit about covering herself in seed and letting a small flock of geese peck it all off was probably just a rumor, though.
  • Justinian I and Theodora really were in profound love with each other though he was old enough to be her father.  The two were the ultimate power couple, acting as co-rulers much of the time.
  • Justinian outlived Theodora by many years, Neither died of the plague.
  • The plague outbreak can be blamed for the ultimate decline of the Roman Empire.
  • The flea has evolved into hundreds, maybe thousands of different species, many of the specialized and specific to a single animal.  Dog fleas are not rat fleas.
  • Rabbit fleas do not lay eggs unless their host is pregnant.  They leap to the newborn rabbits once everyone is born.
  • Though they may prefer one species, fleas will leap to another if no other host is available.
  • What the Bible calls “leprosy” is almost certainly not Hansen’s disease.  It’s probably psoriasis or eczema.
  • While what the Bubonic Plague does to humans is terrible, what it does to the fleas that carry the Yersina Pestis virus is even more horrifying.

The actual plague makes up only a small portion of Justinian’s Flea, which was a bit disappointing for me since that was my main interest in picking up the book.  Mr. Rosen spends most of his book on the life and work of Justinian.  It’s an interesting life, to say the least and his work is darn impressive too.  While there were a few chapters that I skimmed, I’m not all the interested in the details of Justinian’s Code for example, I enjoyed most of the book quite a bit.

And learned a lot from reading it, too.

 

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

“Little Big Man changed the way I see the world.”  If you were around in the 1970’s, after the Dustin Hoffman film version of Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man hit the screen, you probably heard someone say this.  Maybe you said it yourself.   I was too young for R-rated movies in 1970, back then no one would have dreamed of taking a seven-year-old to a PG movie let alone an R-rated one, so  I was in college the first time someone told me Little Big Man changed them.

Thomas Berger’s novel turns out to be problematic in its depictions of Native Americans.  It’s not really about Native Americans; it’s about a white man who was raised by them.  This is a subtle but important distinction– one that separates the novel from the movie based on it.  The novel’s narrator, Jack Crab, functions as a Candide figure.  He moves through the major historical events of his day as an innocent.  He is captured by the Cheyenne after a rival tribe massacres his family’s wagon train.  For a time he lives with the Cheyenne and comes to see tribal elder, Old Lodge Skins, as his father.  He never forms a lasting bond with anyone else he meets during his life.  However, he abandons the Cheyenne in the midst of battle in order to save his own life.

Over the course of the novel he meets Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane, and  General Armstrong Custer.  He moves among several Native America tribes, Mormon settlers, peddlers, buffalo hunters, former slaves, trappers, preachers, whore houses, school marms, and would be senators.  His story is all-encompassing.  He is the American west.  And while he returns to the Cheyenne several times, his attitude towards them remains problematic for 21st century readers.

Take the scene when the calvary, led by Custer, massacres the Cheyenne village at Washita creek. Jack Crab tries to save Old Lodge Skins who refuses to leave his teepee, claiming, “Today is a good day to die.”  Crab convinces his grandfather that a dream he had granted him invisibility– no soldier will be able to see you, we can just walk through the fighting to the river.  But before he’ll leave, Old Lodge Skins, who has become blind from a previous wound, insists on taking all of his magical possessions.

“Wait,” he said.  “I must take my medicine bundle.”  This was a sloppy parcel about three foot long and wrapped in tattered skins.  Its contents was secret, but I had once peeked into that of a deceased Cheyenne before they put it with him on the burial scaffold, and what was contained was a handful of feathers, the foot of an owl, a deer-bone whistle, the dried pecker of a buffalo, and suchlike trash: but he undoubtedly believed his strength was tied up in this junk, and who was I to say him nay.  So with Old Lodge Skins.  I got his bundle from a pile of apparent refuse behind his bed.

Crab’s attitude towards Old Lodge Skins beliefs here is typical of his stance on Native Americans.  He is critical, often dismissive of Cheyenne customs and beliefs in ways fitting the fashion of a 19th century man that border on racist today.  Look at how he describes Old Lodge Skins possessions in the quote above–‘tattered,’ ‘suchlike trash,’ ‘junk,’ ‘apparent refuse.’  The language here is fairly mild when compared to other scenes in the novel.  This is typical of the language used by 19th century authors to describe Native American tribes as the following passage from Mark Twain’s 1870 essay “The Noble Redman” illustrates:

His heart is a cesspool of falsehood, of treachery, and of low and devilish instincts. With him, gratitude is an unknown emotion; and when one does him a kindness, it is safest to keep the face toward him, lest the reward be an arrow in the back. To accept of a favor from him is to assume a debt which you can never repay to his satisfaction, though you bankrupt yourself trying. 

However, by the end of the novel I came to see Jack Crab’s ambivalence about Native Americans as a testament to how good Little Big Man is.  A narrator with nothing but praise for anyone Jack Crab met during his life, would not be a narrator we could believe in. I’m not going to say trust here, because I don’t think we can trust Jack Crab completely.  He’s well over 100 years old, or so he claims, and he’s telling us what happened to him  80 years ago.  Much of what he says is hard to believe, as hard to believe as most history texts about this period are.  We often can’t believe it, or don’t want to believe it.  Did the above quote from Mark Twain shock you?  Have you long believed he was an advocate in favor of civil rights and equality for all people?  How could the man who wrote Huck Finn hold views like this about Native Americans?     

The movie makers wisely decided to leave out some of the book.  While they have given Jack Crab a life outside of his time with the Cheyenne, the movie is concerned with making a statement about the treatment of Native Americans which the book is not.  Compare the movie’s depiction of the massacre at Washita Creek.  There really is little humor in this scene.  There is no business about Old Lodge Skins dressing himself in his fanciest clothing or looking for his medicine bundle.  Jack Crab does convince Old Lodge Skins that he is invisible and he does walk through the battle smiling but there is no overt comedy in the movie’s depiction as there was in the book.  It’s entirely tragic.  Chief Dan George, who portrayed Old Lodge Skins in the movie, smiles his way to the river, but his smile only serves to make the entire sequence more disturbing.

 

I’m not enough of a film historian to say this with authority, but I think this was the first time mainstream American movie audiences ever saw an Indian village massacred. We’d seen the reverse, Indians destroying farm houses and wagon trains like the one in the opening scene of Little Big Man, but this was the first depiction of what was done to the Native American tribes. It’s a brilliant piece of film making, though difficult to watch.  Jack Crab leads Old Lodge Skins to safety like Aneas leading his father from the burning ruin of Troy, but Jack’s wife and son will not survive the battle.   Pay attention to the way music and sound is used in this scene and to the way the editing makes it look like Jack is shot and killed along with his wife and child.  It’s easy to see why this movie changed so many of the people who saw it.

In both the book and the movie, Jack Crab returns to white civilization after the Battle of Washita vowing revenge on Custer for the massacre.  That’s how he ends up at the Battle of Little Big Horn where he is the sole white survivor.  Here again, the book differs from the movie in ways that I found problematic.  In the movie, events are telescoped. Little Big Horn follows the Washita massacre fairly quickly while in the book there are many years and chapters between these two events.  In the book enough time passes for Jack to meet General and Mrs. Custer and to come to admire them both.  It’s difficult to remain sympathetic to Jack throughout Little Big Man.  The reader wants him to be angrier about what happens to the Cheyenne, not  to praise General Custer.  The book is anti-establishment in its depiction of both white and native American society.  It pokes fun at everyone, victim and victor, which just seems unfair at times.

But in the end, I think that’s America.  In America Chief Sitting Bull leads the attack on Custer at Little Big Horn and ends up an attraction in a wild west show.  50 dollars a week was the pay.  The great scope of history is turned into fodder for circuses.  Jack Crab may look like Aneas in one scene but he’s really Candide with a more knowledgable Dr. Pangloss in Old Lodge Skins.  The movie version sums it up in Old Lodge Skins’ final line, “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

 

Thomas Berger, like Voltaire before him, looks at the horrors of history and concludes the only way to deal with it all is to laugh at it.  Towards the end of the novel Jack Crab, Little Big Man, speaks to his grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, about Custer:

I says: “He was not scalped, Grandfather.  The Indians respected him as a great chief.”

Old Lodge Skins smiled at me as at a foolish child.

 “No my son,” says he.  “I felt his head. They did not scalp him because he was going bald.”

 

 

This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back when I was running two reading challenges at once: The Hop-a-long, Git-a-long, Read-a-long; and the Read  the Book, See the Movie Challenge.  There were both fun.  I enjoyed reading challenges, but it’s been a long time…

Season of the Witch by David Talbot

What struck me, most about David Talbot’s history of  San Francisco was just how violent the times were.

Season of the Witch concentrates on the years between the Summer of Love, 1968, and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.  The 1970’s are largely remembered today for disco and very, shall we say, creative fashions but this was a period of violent upheaval in America, certainly in San Francisco.

Mr. Talbot explains that in the early 1970’s, during the years that saw the famed Patty Hearst kidnapping, there were multiple attacks on police officers every day.  He details one failed car bombing which did’t even make the local Bay Area news since there was no explosion.  Bombings without a fatality just weren’t all that unusual in the 1970’s; they certainly weren’t news.

I found Season of the Witch very hard to put down, which many people will find unusual in non-fiction.  Not only is Season of the Witch non-fiction, it covers a period I lived through–I remember how these stories end–so to say that it’s an exciting read for me really says something.  It was also very enlightening; there was so much I didn’t know.

Season of the Witch is a portrait of a city and its changing people, but it’s largely a true-crime story.  Patty Hearst and the SLA who kidnapped her, the Zebra Killers, the Zodiac, Dan White and Jonestown, not to mention a highly disreputable police force nearly overwhelm the book.  But there’s still room for redemption with Herb Caen’s newspaper columns, the rise of the 49’ers football dynasty, Armistead Maupin, gay liberation and the sexual revolution; plenty of very bright spots to provide a light in the darkness.

But there sure was a lot of darkness.

I had no idea growing up in the East Bay, over the hills in quiet suburban Pleasanton, California.  But no wonder my parents were nervous about letting me go to San Francisco State in 1982.  That was the tail end of it all, but it was still The Season of the Witch.