1491

1491 by Charles C. Mann, second edition9781400032051

publication date: 2011
pages: 541
ISBN: 9781400032051

The title of this book came from the year immediately before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Charles C. Mann wanted to show what life was like for the people in the Americas before European contact. The book, originally published in 2005, was very popular. I was reading the second edition, published in 2011. After reading it, I understood why the book was popular and why it warranted a second edition.

Mann wasn’t just describing American Indian life in 1491. He also was attempting to show why our modern conceptions of pre-Columbian peoples are wrong. He had three main ideas about the American Indians before European contact. First, that they were numerous and the Americas were densely populated. Second, that the native peoples’ societies were old and complex. And third, that American Indians manipulated the land around them to suit their needs and desires.

Mann used extensive research to support his ideas. He quoted academic papers, interviews, and primary sources. He also included evidence and sources that contradicted his own ideas. Notwithstanding this inclusion, most of his arguments were effectively convincing. For example, Mann argued that the number of Indians killed by European diseases was extraordinarily high: perhaps 9 in 10 killed within 200 years of contact. His explanation for this was clear and persuasive:

When humans and domesticated animals share quarters, they are constantly exposed to each other’s microbes. Over time, mutation lets animal diseases jump to people: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes human measles, horsepox becomes human smallpox. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in constant contact with many animals. They domesticated only the dog; the turkey . . .; and the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck and the guinea pig . . . .

Mann then went on to explain that when the Europeans brought domesticated animals, especially pigs, to the Indian homeland, Indian immune systems were not prepared for animal diseases, and some communities experienced death rates of 96 percent.

Mann not only provided compelling arguments for his theories, he also included interesting and enlightening details about American Indian life. For example:

The Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy – but they did not use the wheel. Amazingly, they had invented the wheel but did not employ it for any purpose other than children’s toys. Those looking for a tale of cultural superiority can find it in zero; those looking for failure can find it in the wheel. Neither line of argument is useful, though. What is most important is that by 1000 a.d. Indians had expanded their [agricultural] revolutions to create a panoply of diverse civilizations across the hemisphere.

Although 1491 was sometimes dense, it was routinely interesting and presented an innovative and compelling picture of the Americas before European contact.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

New York Times
Root Simple
Foreign Affairs

Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories Of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah9780399588174

publication date: 2016
pages: 285
ISBN: 9780399588174

In this excellent memoir, Trevor Noah presented his readers with a look into growing up in South Africa, under apartheid and directly after apartheid’s dissolution. The title of the book came from the fact that Noah was mixed, with a black mother and a white father. Under the laws of South Africa during apartheid, it was illegal for people from two races to have sex, much less have a child. So Noah, because of his parentage, was literally born a crime.

Almost every aspect of Born a Crime was incredibly effective. The book obviously focused on only Noah’s life and Noah’s stories; but, within those stories, Noah explored meaningful and historically important themes, such as racism, poverty, totalitarianism, and hope. Noah’s relationship with his mother also played a major, and touching, role in the book.

While investigating these weighty themes, Noah used a winning, confessional style. He also was very funny. Here was a story he told about how his mother would have to chase him in order to discipline him:

When I was little she always caught me, but as I got older I got faster, and when speed failed her she’d use her wits. If I was about to get away she’d yell, “Stop! Thief!” She’d do this to her own child. In South Africa, nobody gets involved in other people’s business – unless it’s mob justice, and then everybody wants in. So she’d yell “Thief!” knowing it would bring the whole neighborhood out against me, and then I’d have strangers trying to grab me and tackle me, and I’d have to duck and dive and dodge them as well, all the while screaming, “I’m not a thief! I’m her son!”

Noah also offered excellent details, about his life and about living in South Africa. These details made his stories lively and potently reminded the reader of the constant horrors of apartheid. In this passage, Noah created rich descriptions about the particulars of growing up poor:

We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily good food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well we’d have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head.

Born a Crime did have some flaws. It was repetitive at times. Also, Noah prefaced each chapter with a few pages describing an aspect of living under apartheid. Sometimes, these prefaces were effective, as in this passage from the first page:

[During apartheid, the government divided two dominant tribal groups:] the Zulu and the Xhosa. The Zulu man is known as a the warrior. He is proud. He puts his head down and fights. . . . The Xhosa, on the other hand, pride themselves on being the thinkers. . . . The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man.

Often, however, these prefaces seemed muddled and unnecessary.

Notwithstanding these minor flaws, this book superbly depicted the small facts of Noah’s life, while pondering the major themes that effected everyone raised in South Africa.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

USA Today
Wanderer News
New York Times

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

Bastards of the Reagan Era

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts9781935536659

publication date: 2016
pages: 68
ISBN: 978-1-935536-65-9

This poetry collection chronicled Betts’s time in the 1980s and 90s during the “crack epidemic” and as an inmate in prison. He took a direct and nuanced look at the tangles of the drug war in cities at that time. The significance of the title seemed to be two-fold: first, he felt his community was complicit in the explosion of drug use that happened at that time, and the consequences of that complicity:

It take a nation of millions to hold / us back? Well they got that. We got that too. / Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate / your own fool self. Father forgive. . .

The second aspect of the title was the role the government and society at large played:

Death reinvented when red / was the curse of men born black / and lost in a drama Reagan read / as war: crack vials and cash and red / in our eyes and we not still / with a pocket full of stones.

The poems were generally focused on a few major themes: selling drugs, the inner city, and prison life. Many of the poems were labeled as elegies, including “Elegy Where a City Burns,” which contained these lines:

They wake / young & bound by count time & chow call, / burning in purgatory / where there is no rest. / & their lives: music, that same / melody —, / where prison is the imitation of life.

These forceful and repeated themes were present throughout and seemed to be focused around a thesis, possibly summed up in these lines:

We were all running down demons with our / Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was / Like them, unwilling to admit one thing: / On some days I just needed my father.

The language, rhythm, and imagery of the poems was usually striking and rarely fell flat. One of my favorite poems was about a game of street football with these lines:

Touchdowns are as rare as angels / & when the boy turns his body, / the RIP shirt slants against the wind, / & there is a moment when he is not / weighed down by gravity, when / he owns the moment before he crashes / into the other boys’ waiting arms & they / all look like a dozen mannequins, / controlled by the spinning sneaker / strings of the dead boys above them.

These poems focused on a subject matter not often found in published poetry and the author crafted his thought and concepts wonderfully.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

New York Times
Rhizomatic Ideas
Muzzle Magazine

I Think You’re Totally Wrong

9780385351942I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by David Shields and Caleb Powell

publication date: 2015
pages: 261
ISBN: 978-0-385-35194-2

I Think You’re Totally Wrong was just two dudes arguing. Literally. The book was an edited transcript of Shields and Powell’s discussions on a three-day weekend they took for the explicit purpose of arguing with each other. As Shields said about midway through the book: “It’s an ancient form: two white guys bullshitting.” You might be wondering, as I was, did we really need to rehash this old song and dance again? Well I’ll tell you: I loved it.

I had not read these two authors before, but they obviously followed literary and political news and trends. They also did not shy from being brutally honest with each other and with themselves. This meant that I Think You’re Totally Wrong was a voyeuristic Keeping Up With the Kardashians, but for those of us in the “Oh, I don’t have a TV” faction.

Here’s an example of them not holding anything back from each other, in a typically literary way:

CALEB: There’s something appealing in an artist who turns toward contradictions, a troubled and tormented artist who seeks pain. There’s mystique, validity, even credibility. You may disagree, but one thing I’ve observed in your writing is that you seem like you almost wish you had suffered more than you actually have.
DAVID: Then you’re a really bad reader and know nothing about my life.

ZING.

And then sometimes Caleb would just get drunk and talk nonsense:

CALEB: I’ve gotta good sense of direction because of my Oriental background.
DAVID: You’re “Oriental”?
CALEB: I was born in Taiwan. I can orient. The shadows speak to the sun, the sun speaks to the shadows, and the sun and the shadows speak to you.

This all added up to a book that talked about a lot of important things: suffering, Art v. Life, morality — but was really about the main foundation of life: two people talking to each other. These were two people willing to be vulnerable and say their truth, even if it was contradictory or unpopular. For example:

CALEB: There are inferior and superior cultures.
DAVID: Wow. You’re saying that as a fact?
CALEB: It is a fact.
DAVID: I basically agree, but I don’t think you’re supposed to say that. . . .
CALEB: Asians and Africans are equal, but their cultures can’t be. No cultures are. Cultures evolve; politics changes. In India and China, men outnumber women by large margins in some regions because of gender-selective abortion . . . In some cultures, you’re not a woman until your aunt slices your clit off.

As I mentioned above, some might find this book annoying because of it’s myopic premise, but I thought it was funny, endearing, tense, and real.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Boston Globe
Huffington Post
The Stranger

Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell97812500495512

publication date: 2015
pages: 517
ISBN: 978-1-250-04955-1

Carry On was another entrant in the “Chosen One” category, a la Harry Potter, Frodo, and countless other (usually YA) novels wherein a main character is given Herculean tasks and, after many trials and tribulations, completes them. However, our hero Simon Snow wasn’t necessarily the wizard any of us would have chosen for the job. He’s a self-proclaimed “thug” who thought more about food than magic. In fact, Rainbow Rowell precisely and perfectly constructed characters that broke the mold of the genre. A girlfriend who was enamored with the bad guy. A mentor who was never around to counsel because he was off raiding people’s houses in a costume and a funny mustache. A wizarding world with cars, and laptops, and smart phones.

Rowell’s characters were superb and maybe the best thing about a very good book. I loved how realistic they were. Her characters went through shoplifting phases at 14. Some cursed, some drank, some fell in love and lust. And some just wanted out of the game entirely. This book reflected real people who just happened to be magic, and Rowell did a great job of crafting and describing her characters. For example, Simon’s girlfriend wasn’t interested in waiting around for him to complete his destiny:

‘I want to be someone’s right now, Simon, not their happily ever after. I don’t want to be the prize at the end. The thing you get if you beat all the bosses.’

And, as mentioned above, Simon was kind of a lovable doof. Here’s a description of Simon through the eyes of his roommate:

[Simon] likes to be the first person down to breakfast, Chomsky knows why. It’s 6 A.M., and he’s already banging around our room like a cow who accidentally wandered up here.

Beyond creating wonderful characters, Rowell created, as she always does, a wonderful love story. I won’t get too much into the identity of the characters, but Rowell created two young men whose relationship seemed like a remarkable inevitability. Rowell had a talent of focusing on the minute details of the people in love, without being overly descriptive or maudlin. For example, here’s a description of Simon from the guy who had a crush on him:

[Simon] swallows. [He] has the longest neck and the showiest swallow I’ve ever seen. His chin juts out and his Adam’s apple catches – it’s a whole scene.

Beyond the adorable love story with its delightful minutiae, the plot itself was actually quite good. There were twists and turns and several times where I was in suspense. Rowell crafted a story with sensible internal rules, solvable mysteries, and several believable villains. However, the few flaws in the book came from the plot. There were scenes that were muddled and character motivations that relied on suspension of disbelief to make any sense.

Overall, Rowell created an affectionate parody that perfectly satirized this beloved genre, while still creating characters and a story that will probably be a beloved part of the genre canon.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

Npr
Slate
Girl!Reporter 

Forest Dreams Forest Nightmares

Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox Of Old Growth In the Inland West by Nancy Langston

publication date: 1995
pages (including back matter) : 368
ISBN: 0-295-97456-7

For a book ostensibly about the decline in growth of Ponderosa pines in a small region of the Pacific Northwest, I found Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares to be surprisingly relatable.

In the book, Nancy Langston discussed the history of the Blue mountain range that spans the border between Oregon and Washington. At the time of her writing, the Blues had become a battleground between environmentalists, loggers, forest rangers, and bureaucratic government organizations. The history she gave of the Blues mainly encompassed the insertion of pioneers and ranchers in the 1880s up to the management by the Forest Service in the 1910s and the inadvertent destruction of the forest through the 1980s and 90s. Langston’s goal was to provide contemporary caretakers of the Blues with a way forward.

Being someone who is not overly interested in trees or plants or what Langston termed the “inland West,” I mainly picked up the book because I loved how melodramatic the title was. However, Langston wrote the book with such aplomb, I found myself constantly learning new and interesting things. Further, it is amazing how consistent human nature is, in its hubris and shortsightedness: from the Native Americans lighting fires in the forests decades before Americans arrived so they could ride their horses, to the loggers and ranchers in the 1920s who blamed the much milder sheepherders for any environmental damage done in the region because the sheepherders were often foreign, and to the overconfident Forest Service scientists in the 1940s who were so sure they knew what they were doing and instead brought in an era of unmanageable fires and insect invasions. Here is a long passage Langston shared about forest rangers attempting to reintroduce elk into the Blues after they had been hunted into extinction:

The history of elk reintroductions illustrates the ironic ways that attempts to save wild nature often led to the accelerated destruction of the wildness that people sought to preserve. . . . [In 1913], the [forest rangers] had to feed the [reintroduced] elk in stockyards for a month because of deep snow, and five more died and several calves were born prematurely and died. . . . The Association ran out of money to buy hay, and the elk were in danger of simply starving in the stockyards. . . . Finally one afternoon they drove them up to Benjamin Gulch on the edge of town. By morning all the elk had returned to the stockyards to be fed. Finally, in March, they drove the twenty-nine survivors to the Tumalum Creek at the north end of the Blues and released them in the forest, and this time they were too far to find their way back to the hay.

These are sad, confused stories of men who tried to manipulate wild things, which then refused to be wild, so people lost interest. . . . Reintroduction stories like the one recounted above are disturbing because people want wild nature to mean something.

The book’s explanations of its topic were interesting and sophisticated enough to keep me involved. However, Langston’s real masterstroke was that throughout all this, she told a story of American history and optimism. Of men (and a few women) who really thought they were doing right by god and country when they cut down old trees and grazed cattle until the land was barren and always moved ever West to find the next paradise. This is a book that is so much more than its compelling subject matter.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

University Of Washington Press
Book Addiction