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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Wailing Wind; The Known World; Inherent Vice; Paris, The Novel; and The World Without Us

Tony Hillerman.  The Wailing Wind.   ©2002   Joe Leaphorn is still retired, and this one is more about “the legendary detective” than it is about Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito.  There’s a lost gold mine that leads to a couple of murders.  It’s a good read, as always with Hillerman.  November 2013
Edward P. Jones.  The Known World.  ©2003   The author won a Pulitzer for this novel about the lives of slaves and their masters in the 1850s in fictional Manchester County, VA.  It is a series of interconnected or layered stories that take place on two plantations, one owned by a white planter named Robbins and the other by Henry Townsend, who had been a slave on Robbins’ spread until his father, Augustus, bought his freedom.  After manumission Henry began to buy land and slaves and enjoyed some financial success until he died unexpectedly of an illness at age thirty-two.  His wife Calodinia tried to keep the place going, but gradually it fell apart.  Jones digs deep into his characters and brings them to life in ways that are unforgettable. While he was a student at the College of the Holy Cross, he learned that there had been a few African American freemen who had owned slaves.  He researched the subject for about 10 years before writing the novel.  Throughout the book he cites local historical sources, troves of letters, and obscure local regulations.  All of these are his own inventions, but they are obviously based on what he learned in his research.  Besides the fact that some African Americans owned slaves, there were three things that especially interested me.  First, slave owners insured themselves against loss of income when slaves were injured.  In the novel the insurance company is Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance of Hartford, Conn.  Second is his description of the work of the patrollers who were tasked with running down fugitive slaves and who sometimes sold free blacks back into slavery.  Third is the efficiency and power of the language the slaves spoke among themselves.  It is often unpleasant and even brutal, even when they meant to be kind.  Their speech patterns, which Jones seems to have reproduced accurately, reflect the source of their knowledge of “English," the slave owners and overseers who had nothing to say to them except step ‘n fetch it. November 2013
Thomas Pynchon.  Inherent Vice.  ©2009  I may have started this thing once before, so this is the second time I’ve quit after one disk.  The detective is a pothead; his lawyer practices marine law when he’s not getting him out of jail; and his frequent companion is another pothead, “?Denis? rhymes with penis.”  I have read only positive things about Thomas Pynchon, but he is not for me.  November 2013
Edward Rutherford.  Paris, The Novel.  ©2013  I’m not sure this is a novel, but it is a great read that reminds me of Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, parts I and II of a trilogy in progress.  Edward Rutherford skips back and forth over 700 years of French history from around 1300 through WW II to tell the intertwined stories of several families, each from a different social class.  They know when they interact, and they are sometimes aware of connections that go back a generation or two, but they are rarely if ever aware of the long term connections among their families.  That’s as it should be, because the connections are really a literary device to give meaning to what the author has to say about interactions among classes of Paris society over those 700 years.  There’s no way to summarize 30 disks of material, so I’ll just mention what were highlights for me:  What it was like to be a Jew in Paris around 1300; St. Bartholomew’s Day during the reign of Henry IV when thousands of protestants were slaughtered in Paris; Life at the court of Louis XIV; The construct ion of the Eiffel Tower; How Petain handled the mutiny in the French army in 1917; Life in Montmartre; and a long section on the French resistance in WW II.  At some point Rutherford has one of his characters tell us that “bistro” came from the time when Russian troops were quartered in Paris after Napoleon’s defeat, and this is what they shouted in restaurants to demand faster service.  (Bistro is the Russian word for quickly).  Two other nuggets:  French workmen cut the elevator cables in the Eiffel Tower so that Hitler couldn’t go up and look down on Paris, and the British sent the French troops evacuated at Dunkirk back to France.  Most of them were snatched up by the Germans for forced labor and many perished.  November 2013
Alan Weisman.  The World Without Us.  ©2007  A few years after Weisman wrote an article for Harpers about how wildlife rushed in to populate Chernobyl after the humans had to leave, an editor suggested he do an article about what the earth would be like if humans suddenly disappeared.  That idea grew into this book.  We humans aren’t going away anytime soon, but the premise is still interesting, because it gives Weisman an opportunity to write about all the things that humans have done to affect our flora and fauna, our climate and weather and oceans.  In his “coda” at the end of the book, he runs through all of the authorities that he consulted all over the world, and it becomes clear that we need to take him seriously.  I can’t say that the book is a well organized presentation of his case or even exactly what his case is.  Clearly he thinks we should be taking better care of our environment, so perhaps that is the whole message, even though some passages seem anecdotal.  Early on he talks about a primeval forest, the Puszcza Białowieska on the border between Poland and Belarus.  Because it was a Czarist hunting preserve, it has almost never been disturbed by humans and as a result it is rich in flora and fauna that have disappeared everywhere else in Europe.  It is a model of what most of Europe would eventually look like if humans disappeared.  He goes on to talk about a Greek owned resort that ended up in the Turkish part of Cyprus after the partition.  The Greek Cypriots left, of course, and the Turks sealed it off behind chain link fences.  A maintenance expert was allowed in 20 years later to try to get one of the hotels ready to open.  Weisman describes in detail what he found.  Nature had taken over.  In another chapter, hee talks about the communities carved in the tufa in Cappadocia in more detail than I have seen elsewhere and it’s all very interesting, but I’m not sure where he was going with it.  He checks into north America in Clovis times and says that the the conclusion of some scientists that the migrating people ate all of the large animals and caused their extinction is pretty convincing.  While he’s here he mentions that Mount Rushmore will be the human artifact that lasts the longest, perhaps 22 million years. These things all tell us that theworld is different because of human activity and that much diversity has been lost, but they don’t seem to bear specifically on the future if humans remain here.  However, when he discusses plastic waste in the ocean, nuclear  waste, and the deterioration of barrier reefs because of global warming, it becomes clear we are in trouble.  This is a fascinating book covering all sorts of subjects one would like to follow up on to learn more.  November 2013

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