Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Well worth reading. It's a heartbreaking story of Cora, a slave in the South, who attempts to escape the plantation, following her mother Mabel who (it is said) escaped years before, leaving her young daughter behind. In a way it reminds me of a picaresque, set in episodes, with Cora meeting a huge variety of people along the way. Whitehead's writing is beautiful and deft: "The house had been built fifty years before and the stairs creaked. A whisper in one room carried into the next two." "Ava was wiry and strong, with hands as quick as a cottonmouth." For me, what added to the painfulness of the read was the way he puts the most heartbreaking moments into the plainest, sparest prose, suggesting that all this cruelty and viciousness is all quite ordinary: "Cora started for the stairs but they complained reliably, warning her so often these last few months, that she knew she wouldn't be able to make it. She crawled under Martin's old bed and that's where they found her, snatching her ankles like irons and dragging her out. They tossed her down the stairs. She jammed her shoulder into the banister at the bottom. Her ears rang." The review in the New Yorker made the point that the book skewers the myth (that I heard in my earliest history classes) that the North was a land of tolerance, welcoming escaped slaves and helping them along. Whitehead's version of history shows that betrayals cross gender, age, race, and geography; they take every shape.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Michael Chabon, MOONGLOW

Chabon's writing is always adroit, economical, ambitious, inventive. But this book about his grandfather, drawn from conversations with his grandfather during his last six weeks of life, feels like the book he was always meant to write. Stunning, wide-ranging, poignant. The fact that Chabon and I both have a favorite Salinger short story--"For Esme, with Love and Squalor"--and that we have the SAME version of *Nine Stories* with the colored tiles on the cover made me smile.

There's plenty of praise and commentary on this novel already; so I will just mention just a few of my many favorite lines (even though plucking them out of context doesn't do them justice).

When the time came to leave for the synagogue, the only card my grandfather still held was to make himself disagreeable. Pick a fight and hope to be uninvited.

My grandparents forgave each other with the pragmatism of lovers in a plummeting airplane.

... a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams

"That lighter," [Sally said, about a silver cigarette lighter that had belonged to his grandfather's friend in WWII, and which his grandfather had passed on to Michael].
"There was as a story behind it," [Michael replied].
"I'm sure. All of his stories were stuck behind something."

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


I was utterly impressed and moved by this brilliant book. I was one of those students Hochschild mentions briefly, who read Heart of Darkness in high school, where it was taught as a parable, a cautionary tale akin to Lord of the Flies, about what can happen when one man holds absolute power with no oversight. But Joseph Conrad based his account on several men he had met in Africa--station managers for King Leopold II (of Belgium)'s vicious, brutal extortion of ivory from the Congo. And the forced labor, kidnappings, and brutal treatment of Congolese only grew worse during the subsequent mad scramble for rubber (for tires for bicycles and automobiles). I am appalled and not a little ashamed that until I found this book, I knew next to nothing about any of this. The second half of the book offers a slightly less dismal conclusion to the story--the account of the first great human rights movement of the 20thC, spearheaded by E. D. Morel, Roger Casement and others, that helped put an end to some of the abuses. 

I appreciated how painstaking his research was, and how adroitly the author organized the material into a narrative that was as compelling as a novel. And his afterword, with its cautionary notes about "pretend[ing] to acknowledge something [such as a history of brutality] without really doing so," the need to look at causes, and "the cultural tolerance and even hero-worship" of men such as Mobutu, who, like Leopold II, exploited the Congo to enrich his own coffers, is still a relevant message and points to the need for ongoing dialog about the long shadows that are cast by brutality and the flagrant abuse of power.