Friday, April 21, 2017

The Covenant - James A. Michener

An epic of South Africa. From prehistory when the rhythm of the land was counted in moons and migrations, through age of exploration and the coming of the Europeans, to the British conflict, and apartheid, Michener weaves a tale of the land and its people that walks the balance between truth and fiction. It is interesting that a novelization of a nation's past (and present) can feel like it encapsulates more of a country's true spirit than a strictly historical account can. Michener's is clearly a thoroughly researched and painstakingly crafted account. He tries to disentagle relationships between people, animals, and the land, and to even account for the historical motive forces behind the seemingly impenetrable walls of apartheid and the multivalent divisions between whites and blacks, British and Boer, Coloureds, and Xhosa, Zulu, and Khoikhoi. The reader is left wondering at the questions that may have no discernible answer: how does an unfinished nation function as a coherency? Worth the investment to meet the 1,000+ pages.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Politics of Rural Resentment - Katherine J. Cramer

University of Wisconsin - Madison sociologist Cramer takes an extended, unflinching, and sympathetic look at the how state politics is understood and how state policies are experienced by rural residents of Wisconsin. In the wake of the financial crisis and in the run-up to Governor Walker's recall vote, Cramer begins by wondering why it appears that urban and rural residents are engaged in an almost entirely dissimilar political world. What she finds, the disconnection rural residents feel from state services and employees and the antagonism they feel towards a government that does not appear to represent or care about their values is an insightful anecdotal take on America's ongoing political divide. Cramer begins by going in-depth to explain the value of her interview methods - which are crucial to understanding the claims she makes. While the work does not directly or obliquely address the 2016 election, the parallels appear paramount.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

July's People - Nadine Gordimer

A work about pride, power, displacement, and uncertainty. Elegant and complex. July's People tells the story of a white South African couple who flees when uprisings threaten their lives and livelihoods. They go to live with July, their domestic worker, at his home village in the eastern veld. When the world is, seemingly, turned upside-down objects take on different meanings and dependencies realign. A classic of South African literature, Gordimer's work was unclear to me on the first reading and will be worth revisiting.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

Allowing someone else into our world, making them a confidant, or an intimate in our own lives is simultaneously a means of expanding ourselves and of letting go. At a certain point we trust others who are close to us. We trust them to be gentle when we are fragile and to push us when it is appropriate - even if we may not know when that time is. Relationships of trust require tending, practice, negotiating norms and boundaries. Loss, then, somewhat impoverishes our world. The space of relationship-as-expansion disappears.

Helen Macdonald's book is about training a goshawk. But it is also, and perhaps more so, about what loss can do and how we see that loss manifest in our endeavors and in ourselves. Macdonald shows us how the experience of losing her father is poured into her developing relationship with the goshawk, whom she calls Mabel. Macdonald clearly understands that the type of relationship she has with Mabel is of a different character than what she had with her father. She does not conflate her sense of emotional connection with the hawk's. Yet, it would be a narrow understanding of relationships - of any kind - to denigrate the one between a person and a bird as somehow less worthy of our examination and reflection.

Taking solace in a relationship, say between human and animal, does not mean that it replaces the relationship lost. The world is expanded when we bring others into it. Whether they be human or otherwise. How it is expanded says more about the interactions of the relationship than it does about either participant.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Civil War: a Narrative, Part One Fort Sumter to Perryville

The first of Foote's three-part magnum opus on the American Civil War. This is the interweaving story of the men, both Union and Confederate, who would grapple for the future of the American experiment. Foote's is a piece of by-gone scholarship. Battles take center stage and the lives of great men loom large. Witness Lincoln and Davis, McClellan and Lee, Stonewall and Hooker.

Foote conveys sideline skirmishes and massive battles with equal attention. Both the mountains of eastern Tennessee and bloody excesses of Shiloh are given space. As the conflict ratchets ever upward (more Americans were killed at Shiloh alone than all prior American conflicts combined), Foote unblinkingly peers into woods, along the trenches, and across the fields. He excels in communicating the chaos, noise, and uncertainty of battle without losing individual voices in the fray. It is so terrible to behold because men do the reaper's work: mowing one another down. Embodying the terrible scythe.

By the end of the first volume the country is firmly entrenched in the indispensable American conflict. Many on both sides thought it would be a short and decisive war. While the Confederates pursued international recognition, the Union believed a crushing blow on the road to Richmond would demoralize the South. By the end of 1862 this much was clear: there would be no easy resolution. The South had won its share of signal victories; in many cases Union armies seemed to under-perform.  At this juncture the feeling is simultaneously one of hard-fought experience and a tenuous waiting. While the Confederacy struggles to prop up an impoverished nation and resource-limited army, the Union has yet to bring down its hammer. By the beginning of 1863 it appears that only through overwhelming force would the Union prevail. While only through northern exhaustion could the Confederacy break-away.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coming into the Country - John McPhee

Fewer than 20 years removed from achieving statehood, Alaska was still very much a frontier. A place for misfits, the prideful, the quiet, the lonely, but also the committed, the true, and the false, Alaskans came (and come) in all forms. But generally (with the glaring exception of indigenous people) they are immigrants, who have been drawn, not just away from one country but towards another. Committed to both inhabiting the place of their imagination and crafting a place that is their own.

McPhee recounts Alaska and its people negotiating the complicated meanings of being both part of and apart from the United States. The infiltration of people, technologies, and governmental order along the frontier could, for many, make this vast place seem increasingly small. Along the foothills and inlets of Juneau, spreading across the Turnagain Arm, into Denali and up to the North Slope would come employment, services, communication, as well as laws, rules, oversight. Alaska was the last place in the United States a person could homestead - set out for an unoccupied plot to make their own.

Though a vast space of wilderness and wildness, Alaska is also a place of people. These are McPhee's favored subjects. The city planner for a would-be newly cited state capital. The trapper on his line. The town council. The homesteader. The miner. Alaska in its many iterations dominates,and yet is shaped by its people. The land is vast, yet not untouched. Its meaning is apparent for some; to others, only hinted at. McPhee's work is as capacious as the state, finding space for the plurality of human and natural voices. It is a testament to a specific time, in a seemingly timeless land.

Monday, October 24, 2016

All the Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy

The arid lands along the Texas-Mexico borderlands were, and remain, a vast space of dust, mesquite, and sun. Cormac McCarthy's spare style somewhat mimics the spare landscape. The country, the people, and the relationship between them come alive in prose embodying distance and space. As they traverse the rangelands the lives of John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins take shape. They grow and change in response to a land, the bones of which are laid before us. The country is hard on people.

John Grady Cole starts as a young man, moving gradually toward adulthood. There are no plans to speak of. He takes what is allowed to him, but is not swallowed by circumstance. Both he and Lacey seem content in the knowledge that most things don't have a suitable explanation. There are human powers which move our lives and we can choose how to meet these powers, but most people will have little say in their actions. The world is alternately bright as the open plains and dark as a jail cell. Only at certain, fleeting times is there balance between the two. Nevertheless, life pulses with blood and there is no horizon beyond death.