Roots

Roots by Alex Haley9780440174646

publication date: 1976
pages: 688

Roots is a classic and for good reason.

The book followed an entire family’s ancestral line, from 17-year-old Kunta Kinte being snatched from a Gambian forest by slave traders in the late 1700s, to the author, Alex Haley, who was born into freedom in 1921. The first half of the book was devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life, as a young man in Africa and then in adulthood as a slave in America. The second half of the book focused on the descendants of Kinte, from Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, through several generations down to Haley.

My favorite part of the book was the first 150 pages, which described Kinte’s life as a member of the Mandinka tribe in Africa. Haley’s text captured the specific details of a culture very different from our modern-day Western culture, but he always considered the shared humanness that existed between Kinte’s Mandinka culture and our American one. For example, here was a passage describing when Kinte graduated from school:

One by one now, the arafang asked each graduate to stand. Finally came Kunta’s turn. “Kunta Kinte!” With all eyes upon him, Kunta felt the great pride of his family in the front row, even of his ancestors in the burying ground beyond the village – most especially of his beloved Grandma Yaisa. Standing up, he read aloud a verse from the Koran’s last page; finishing, he pressed it to his forehead and said, “Amen!” When the readings were done, the teacher shook each boy’s hand and announced loudly that as their eduction was complete, these boys were now of the third kafo, and everyone broke out into a loud cheering.

Although I loved reading about Kinte’s life in Africa, the most powerful part of the book was after his capture, when he was shackled in the slave transport ship from the African coast to America. In very concrete terms, Haley portrayed the horrific conditions of the months-long forced voyage that Kinte, and thousands of other Africans, took during the transatlantic crossing to slavery. Here was a passage:

Occasionally, down in the hold, Kunta would hear a little murmuring here and there, and he wondered what they could find to talk about. And what was the point? His Wolof shacklemate was gone, and death had taken some of those who had translated for the others. Besides, it took too much strength to talk any more. Each day Kunta felt a little worse, and it didn’t help to see what was happening to some of the other men. Their bowels had begun to drain out a mixture of clotted blood and thick, grayish-yellow, horribly foul-smelling mucus.

The ending of the book, with Haley investigating Kinte’s life in Africa, was also very emotionally moving, although I discovered in my research that there was controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Haley’s story.

Throughout the book, there was nothing very special or interesting about Haley’s writing. He didn’t create many memorable phrases or passages and there were timing and pace issues in the second half of the book. What made the book so memorable was Haley’s subject matter and his intricate characters.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book

Good Books and Good Wine
An Improbable Life
goodreads

The Luminaries

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton9780316074315

publication date: 2013
pages: 830
ISBN: 978-0-361-07431-5

In this long, sprawling novel, Catton investigated luck, destiny, and love in 1860s New Zealand. Rather than relying on conventional narration and character development, Catton instead presented her plot using personal letters and story-telling techniques and jumping from present to past to future. She also focused on the heavens.  As explained by Catton at the outset:

For the planets have changed places against the wheeling canvas of the stars. . . . But there is no truth except truth in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no long sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past.

Catton used her tangled writing to introduce a mystery: just as a stranger has arrived in town, a man is found dead, a woman found half-dead, and a missing man not found at all. This was all presented against the backdrop of a New Zealand mining town and, for some reason, the celestial and astrological arrangement of the time.

Catton’s writing was heavily stylized. She used a wordy, convoluted style, which brought to mind a learned bore from Jane Austen times. Here was an example from very early on in the book:

For the first time – perhaps because of his growing frustration, which served to focus his attention more squarely upon the scene at hand – [Mr.] Moody felt his interest begin to stir. The strange silence of the room was hardly testament to the kind of fraternity where all was shared and made easy . . . and moreover, [Mr.] Balfour had offered very little with respect to his own character and reputation in the town, by which intelligence Moody might be made to feel more assured of him!

Catton attempted to fit so much into this book. She had about 15 fully-realized characters, along with a love story, a supernatural mystery, painstakingly accurate star charts, and a meticulous writing technique.

For me, almost all of it fell flat. The characters were well-explained but uninteresting. The love story was pointless, and a little insulting. Anything supernatural was never explained; nor was anything to do with astrology. The meticulous writing was impressive, but only made the book seem daunting and overly-indulgent. When I closed the book, I had this thought: just because someone spent a lot of time crafting something does not make it good.

Catton obviously spent a lot of time writing this book, and I sure spent a lot of time reading it. But, that’s not enough of a reason for me to recommend it to you.

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews:

New York Times
Slate
Book Page

Jackaby

Jackaby by William Ritter9781616203535

publication date: 2014
pages: 209
ISBN: 978-1-61620-353-5

William Ritter took several successful formulas – a Sherlock-esque antisocial detective, a supernatural mystery, a steam punky female narrator – and spliced them together to form Jackaby.

The book followed Abigail Rook as she arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, in 1892. Abigail stumbled upon Jackaby, an eccentric detective of the occult, and began work for him as his assistant. The two quickly (unnervingly quickly) encountered a murder that needed solving. Abigail and Jackaby worked together, along with a police officer, a banshee, and a ghost, to solve the case.

In general, I found the whole book to be quite tedious. Jackaby was almost a straight rip-off of Sherlock Holmes, except he argued for the metaphysical and not against it. As an example, here was Jackaby convincing a police officer to take them further into a crime scene, which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen in every Sherlock ever:

“Wait,” said Charlie, following. “I told the inspector [Marlowe] I would take you out of the building.”

“And so you shall,” Jackaby called over his shoulder. “Expertly, I imagine, and to the letter of the instruction. However, I don’t recall Marlowe giving any specific directions about time, nor about the route we take, so let’s have a quick chat with someone odd, first, shall we? I do love odd. Ah, here we are!”

I also solved the case 1/3 through the book and figured out the red herring about 2/3 of the way through. That’s not me bragging, because I’m not the type to “figure out” books while I read them. That’s me showing how transparent the plot was.

The writing was also tiresome. Ritter attempted to falsely insert drama and interest. Here was a small example, as both Abigail and Jackaby were walking from Jackaby’s office to the post office to work on the case:

My stomach was growling audibly as Jackaby paid the vendor for two steamy meat pies. . . .

“So, what we know thus far,” Jackaby said suddenly, as if the ongoing conversation in his head had bubbled over and simply poured out his mouth, “is our culprit left poor Mr. Bragg with a wicked chest wound and a grieving girlfriend, and he made off with a good deal of the fellow’s blood. . . .”

Ritter was obviously trying to create tension by having what Jackaby did be “sudden,” but I honestly do not know how Jackaby could have started that conversation any less suddenly. Was he supposed to say: “Alright, I’m going to talk about the case now, it’s coming up, just about to talk about it. Are you ready? Here we go. . .”

The unoriginal characters, thin plot, and simplistic writing meant that I had almost no emotional investment in the book.

The book wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Ritter did have some imaginative beasties and fantastical creatures. And there was one part of the book that I actively liked, when Abigail and Jackaby were questioning a woman:

[Hatun said,] “Oh no. been keeping to myself, kept my shawl on all tight all night, didn’t want anyone finding me after what I saw.”

“You were hiding in your shawl?” I asked.

Hatun gave the pale blue knit shawl around her shoulders an affectionate tug. “Only street folk can see me in this, beggars and homeless, like. Never had much cause to watch out for them – they’re good souls, the most of ‘em. For everyone else – well, it doesn’t make me invisible or nothing, just impossible to notice.” She smiled proudly.

Jackaby and I exchanged glances.

“Erm, I found you,” said my colleague.

Hatun gave him a knowing wink. “You don’t exactly follow the rules when it comes to finding things, though, now do you, Detective?”

I thought that passage was an effective commentary on how we can overlook the homeless and downtrodden.

If someone was intensely interested in this genre, I would recommend this book, because it followed the mold closely. For the rest of us, I thought the book had:

2/6: many problems

Other reviews of the book:

Nerdist
teenreads
Cuddle Buggery

Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

publication date: 1985
pages: 857
ISBN: 978-0-684-87122-6

It is rare to find a book that makes you race along reading it because the plot is so spirited, while also pressing you to stop and ponder humanity and mortality because of its scope and language. A book that introduces you to characters so complex and whole that it doesn’t matter if you find them “likable” or “relatable;” instead, they just exist. A book that makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you question, worry, wonder, remember, approve. Lonesome Dove is that book.

In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry crafted an epic Western that was sweeping, but never pretentious; long, but perfectly paced. The book followed the Hat Creek Cattle Company as it moved cattle from newly-settled Texas to the unsettled territory of Montana in the late 1800s. The Company consisted of two former Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae and Captain Call; young Newt; Bolivar the Mexican cook; unthinking Pea Eye; and steadfast Deets.

As these characters rode through the American West, McMurtry used description so expertly that a sense of atmosphere was evoked in almost every scene. Here was an example:

Jake looked off across the scrubby pastures. There were tufts of grass here and there, but mostly the ground looked hard as flint. Heat waves were rising off it like fumes off kerosene. Something moved in his line of vision, and for a moment he thought he saw some strange brown animal under a chaparral bush.

As mentioned above, McMurtry was also deft at crafting characters. Because of the encompassing nature of the book, McMurtry introduced dozens of characters. However, I can picture almost all of them distinctly. One of my favorites was Lorena, a tough prostitute who showed little affection but was the unrequited Manic Pixie Dream Girl of almost every man who met her. Here’s a cowboy’s description of her:

Looking at her, though, was like looking at the hills. The hills stayed as they were. You could go to them, if you had the means, but they extended no greeting.

One of my favorite things about the book was how the characters were so realistic that they were not merely reflections of the author’s message or plot. Instead, all the narratives were slightly biased toward that particular narrator and were subtly false. It was nothing blunt or confusing, but the dialogues and the narratives wove together to create a picture of the character, not necessarily a picture of the world in the book.

As I was reading the book, I was struck by how alien these characters’ lives were. No electricity, no refrigerators, riding on horseback all day – usually voluntarily. However, much was the same. Some people sought adventure, some just wished to stay at home. Some people were lazy, some would work until you stopped them. Some people would do almost anything to get laid or have any kind of companionship, others would be content to see another person once every few years. Although the setting was foreign, the book itself never stopped being understandable.

6/6: instant classic

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
World’s Strongest Librarian
Wendy Reads Books

Jam On the Vine

Jam On the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett 

publication date: 2015
pages: 323
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2334-3

Much like Artemis Fowl, Jam On the Vine started out ex-ceed-ing-ly slow. Unlike Artemis FowlJam On the Vine picked up as the story went on. It took me almost two weeks to read the first half and about two days to read the second half.

Jam On the Vine followed Ivoe Williams and her family as they moved from the sharecropping South to Jim Crow Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During all this the Williams family endured several racial injustices, including sexual and physical harassment, false imprisonment, and torture.

I wanted to like this book, because I had heard good things about Barnett’s writing and because this subject matter needs more narratives, but I simply did not enjoy it. There were certainly bright spots wherein Barnett captured the human experience, such as this passage from Lemon, the matriarch of the Williams clan, as she discussed her children:

You love your children more than they can ever know. I mean, they can’t never best you in the loving department. But they sure can make you proud.

I liked another similar passage equally as well, as Lemon discussed her stagnant and unemployed son Timbo:

He ought to know sooner or later you got to pay with something – your mind, your heart, your sweat. Something.

Although the book had a few stirring passages, for the most part it was confusing and naggingly unrealistic. For example, this is how the author told us that Ennis Williams had injured is arm:

Truth like that stared you down. More than hurt you, it numbed you – even to a hungry flame. Ennis cussed and stumbled backward to the slack tub, his right arm bubbling with blisters.

After a few re-readings of those lines and several pages later, I finally figured out that what Barnett was trying to convey in those lines was that Ennis was a blacksmith who burned his arm because he was distracted by feeling unable to provide for his children. Barnett revealed another important plot point in a similarly roundabout way. Here was how we found out that one of the character’s children might not actually be his:

Life ought to feel heavy when secrets piled up so high not even a crack of light could get through. Made a soul dark is what it did – all the untelling.

After seeing these passages in isolation, they don’t seem so bad – beautiful even. But reading several chapters with sentence after sentence like this was confusing and overblown.

Additionally, as mentioned above, parts of the book were simply not realistic. Some of the characters’ actions made no sense. And there were little things that would take me out of the story. I wish I liked this book more than I did, but I just can’t give it more than:

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of the book:

Chicago Tribune
Kansas City Star
Lambda Literary

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

publication date: 1998
pages: 434
ISBN: 978-0-312-18008-9

Here’s another book brought to my attention by the “Request-a-Review” feature. One Thousand White Women was a novel of historical fiction, which chronicled the journey of May Dodd and her life with the Cheyenne Indians in 1875. Written largely as May’s journal entries, the book began with May banished to a mental institution for creating a family with a man out of wedlock. While there, she was discovered by a government doctor, who promised her freedom from the institution if she took part in the United States’ secretive, new “Brides for Indians” program. As a member of the program of one thousand white women, May would be an ambassador of the United States living within the Cheyenne Tribe and would be required to marry a Cheyenne husband and bear his children for two years. May agreed to be a member of the program, largely to escape the hellish mental facility.

The plot was based on an event that actually happened, wherein a Cheyenne chief requested one thousand white women to live with the tribe to foster peace between the Cheyenne and the United States. In real life, the request was met with shock, disgust, and a resounding “NO,” but Fergus explored what life would have been like for the women who agreed to the program. Fergus took an inventive idea and crafted a penetrating plot that made the book a worthwhile read.

The plot was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-executed by Fergus, but it isn’t the only satisfying aspect of the book. Fergus used the plot to explore themes such as the relationship between the federal government and the Indian tribes at that time and the role of women in pre-Industrial American society. Fergus discussed Cheyenne society so thoroughly that I keenly felt its absence in contemporary culture. As a small example, here is a great anecdote from the book:

At [May’s Father’s] and Mother’s endless dinner parties [Father] is fond of giving credit to his and his wealthy guests’ great good fortunes by toasting the Sac Chief Black Hawk, who once said that “land cannot be sold. Nothing can be sold but for those things that can be carried away” – a notion that Father found enormously quaint and amusing.

Fergus also excelled at creating a voice for his characters, especially May Dodd. Dodd’s narration encapsulated an 1870s American woman, from the word choice and diction, to her dialogue and values. In fact, because the book was so steeped in May’s voice, there were times I couldn’t separate the author’s views from May’s, as a 19th century woman. This became problematic for me when Dodd’s viewpoint ran counter to my sensibilities. For example, May held condescending feelings for the Cheyenne and American blacks. Her primary description of people of color was “a proud and noble race.” She also fixated on motherhood and thought of motherhood and child-raising as the highest goal for any person or civilization. If Fergus was merely weaving these historical viewpoints into Dodd’s narration, he did a masterful job. I was left wondering, however, if these were some of his values that he worked into the story.

A heinous example of this was Dodd’s recounting of a gathering of Cheyenne where they drank whiskey. It became a complete bacchanal, crowded with rape, assault, and pedophilia. Dodd described it thus:

Throngs of drunk savages, men and women, jostled me as I pushed by. Naked couples copulated on the ground like animals.

Now was this just an urban white woman’s experience, viewed through the lens of her culture, of the Cheyenne drunk on whiskey? Or does Fergus actually believe that a majority of Cheyenne people responded to whiskey in this way? I’m not sure.

Notwithstanding any missteps, the book is an absorbing read.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews (this book is very popular in book clubs, I’m told):

Book Club Queen
The Eclectic Book Worm
News Herald book club

The Watch that Ends the Night

The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

Powell’s Books

publication date: 2011
pages: 467 (including notes, appendixes, etc.)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7636-3703-3

Let me initially say that this book is gorgeous. The book jacket image, of the ship sinking, is vivid and the perspective makes it seem as though lifeboats are rowing toward you. Additionally, the paper is lush. All the pages, including the jacket, have a soft, velvety feel. Plus the beginning font and layout are simple yet evocative. The font used for the bulk of the book however, is not as suggestive; I think it’s Times New Roman. This discussion might seem excessive, but I spent the first five minutes with this book marveling over its attractiveness. And I still stroke the book jacket sometimes!

The Watch that Ends the Night describes itself as a novel, however, a more accurate description would be a collection of perspectives told chronologically, which describe the maiden voyage of Titanic. Generally, the perspectives read more like poems than like prose.

It takes several poems before the book flourishes, but once it does the reader is completely immersed in the characters. Remarkably, I felt compelled to turn the page, even though I knew the end, as we all do. It was Wolf’s distinct and lively characters that kept me interested. Each character (although I shouldn’t call them “characters,” they were all real passengers on Titanic) has an engaging subplot: misplaced money, young love, conning, job advancement. The only fault to be taken with Wolf’s wonderful characters is the ratio of men-to-women: there were far more male characters than female.

The characters, as well as the rest of the book, are all meticulously researched. The last pages of the book contain appendixes describing the known facts of all the characters Wolf writes about. But truly, every single aspect of the book is supremely researched. Wolf describes the likely origin and path of the iceberg, the anatomy of a violin, the complexities of a “Marconi-gram” or telegraph. Wolf even researched a phenomenon he terms a “Rat King,” which occurs when rats’ tails get all tangled up together and they form one giant organism.

As mentioned above, the perspectives are written mainly as poems. Although the book is very powerful, the poetry itself is not innovative. Sometimes Wolf rhymes, sometimes he uses meter, some poems use a cummings-esque typography. Additionally, the first several poems are not distinct enough from each other. However, the poems quickly began to distinguish themselves and the reader could often guess the character just from the poem’s tone. Within these poems, Wolf uses symbolism and imagery, some of which is very good. For example, after a young girl’s brother lies to their father, the girl divulges that “And as Elias and Father turned to go, I found myself unable to move./ Anger had spilled out of my heart and into my feet.” And later, when an undertaker is sifting through the bodies of those who did not find a lifeboat to board but instead were on the ship as it sank, he describes a scene:
A dozen men locked arm in arm altogether in a ring.
The soot-faced stokers, the serge-suited bankers,
the bedroom stewards, and the elevator boys.
Did they cry out in unison, or did they sing?
And how long did it take to watch each member
of their choir lose voice and slump to sleep?

I have always been fascinated by the story of Titanic and it came as no surprise that I enjoyed this book. However, this book is not just for people like me. The actual sinking is only the backdrop of an intricate web of characters who discover what it is to love, to die, to survive. This is a wonderful book that is light-hearted and humorous but still made me cry. And it isn’t just about the passengers on Titanic; it’s about us: you and me.

5/6: seek this book out

Some other reviews:

Bermuda Onion
Encyclopedia Titanica
Stacked