Category Archives: books

Uncle Tom contemporary

Blake: or; The Huts of America by Martin R. Delany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book was recommended during the past Black History Month as an answer to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written at the same time by a Black author. (And since I have never read UTC, I’ll be reading it too.) While I’ve heard the generalization and read a couple examples that slaves weren’t passively waiting to be freed, this novel of the late 1850s reinforces that point all the way through. Henry Holland (becomes Henry Blake about 2/3 into the novel) is working on his own freedom and that of others all the way through.

The novel has two narratives, the first being Henry’s travels through mostly southern states with a plan (we are never told the plan) and his encouraging resourcefulness and resistance. The second tells Henry’s experiences in Cuba. The first gets tedious, but it is worth continuing. For the second, I was glad to have read Cuba: An American History first, though it isn’t essential to understanding what is happening. There are endnotes most of which provide historical analogues and identify characters with historical figures; after the history they indicate sources. I found myself checking them more often than I sometimes do, and they were useful. Though the two narratives are connected, they don’t seem integrated into a whole. Some scenes seem to be there only to illustrate some aspect of slavery, and some conversations to illustrate ideas. When questioned, Henry convinces all too easily. The editor says, “[Delany’s] only fictional effort marks the artistic epitome of a social and political position–that is, the creative offering of an activist rather than the political expressions of an artist” (xiii). Still it is important reading.



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Recent Reading

I’m still reading more than sewing, though I’m knitting on Christmas projects a bit for crafty diversion. I don’t think every book I read is worth blogging about, but this more recent one was fascinating.

This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality by Peter Pomerantsev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It’s not an uplifting read, but it’s not totally depressing. It is just hard to read about the many ways reality can be distorted, especially multiple ways all at once. The chapters seem to be ordered in increasing degree of intensity, and the concluding chapter continues the intensification as well as offering a glimmer of hope for dealing with disinformation. And while many illustrations are from Russia, other countries have their moments: the Philippines, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, and Ukraine, to name a few.

The first chapter deals with troll farms and bots, the second with tactics of non-violence (useful for out of power minorities) being turned back onto those minorities by those in power then used against them. And how that experience disorients. Next Pomerantsev writes about controlling the narrative, how the propagandist first selects a goal for the information warfare, then selects/creates an ideology to go with it. This is intensified in chapter 4, “Soft Facts,” where he writes of the change from trying to make a misleading narrative sound true to simply stating the alternate narrative to confuse rather than to convince. “With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears” (123). In chapter 5, “Pop-Up People,” people seems to have two meanings: a person’s feeling of identities or a disinformationist’s manipulation of the use of we to try to push the reader into an us-them mode of thinking.

I was startled to find an intensification of methods of disinformation in the final chapter, having expected solutions when I read the title, “The Future Starts Here.” The chapter starts with an exploration of the origins and methods of Cambridge Analytica. Then the solutions. I will have to ponder the hints given: In order to limit disinformation on social media, he suggests a shift from the substance to the method, to reveal bots and trolls, for example. Because polarization and us-them thinking are a method, he describes the possibility of flexible identities, to not shift completely from an us-position to a them-position, but to continue analysis. Because Pomerantsev had identified as problem a loss of a sense of future, allowing factlessness, he posits the value of a sense of future. and he notes something many protesters had in common: a love of fiction. Fiction, he posits, helps one develop “an ability to imagine a different social and political reality from the one around you” (195).

Another feature of the book is that each chapter contains a bit of the author’s family history, interesting narratives of parents and grandparents. And some snippets of his father’s writing makes me want to read a couple novels he wrote that have been translated.



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Back to the Books

Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom by Tiya Miles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The first time I read this book (before my Goodreads record keeping), I focused on the Shoe Boots/Doll story and skimmed everything else. Thus I missed a lot of important detail and perhaps the whole point. This time I focused on “everything else” and read the Shoe Boots/Doll story as the glue that holds it together. The Shoe Boots/Doll family is a perfect vehicle because of the many variations in relationship between Black and Cherokee they experience. Is Doll slave or wife or both? Three children are explicitly given freedom and tribal membership, but Doll isn’t–on paper though she seems to have lived as a member. Nor are the twins, born after Shoe Boots’ official request for his first three, explicitly given tribal membership. Thus is illustrated a difference between the official position defined by the white-Cherokee, northeastern educated men who set out to define the Cherokee Nation and the kinship-relationship mores that had existed before and continued to exist after the writing of the constitution. Add to the mix the state of Georgia illegally declaring sovereignty over the Cherokee Nation and annulling all decisions it had made, a move which put wife and children back into the slave category. And the complexity continued after removal and termination. One sees the encroaching ideas of European categories affecting much Cherokee thinking.

I suppose I was more prepared for complexity and nuance on second reading so didn’t get lost in the detail. Miles documents her sources, explains their limitations, explains her attempts to get beyond gaps. There is an important appendix on her historical method and the difficulties of telling histories of Blacks and women when the sources are mostly European and white men. Scholars will appreciate the original sources also shown in the appendices.



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A Black Feminist Approach to History

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Ashley’s sack frames the telling of a history. This book is the antidote for the white upper class worldview presented in books like Gone With the Wind. This is the view from the perspective of the enslaved. An important note: the view isn’t of only the hardships but also of the triumphs, the ways a people treated as things managed to remember and assert their humanity. That was most vivid to me when Miles contrasted the stark businesslike records of selling people with the warm record of the contents of the sack.

Where there are records, Miles combs through them. It seems like drudgery to me to sift through all the bills of sale, wills, and census records till she found a Rose and an Ashley who spent time under the same owner, though on different pieces of property. But the reward came when the pair were found. Other research seems more interesting to do: the social meaning of hair to Victorian English society and to some African societies, the clothing codes for separating the elite from the enslaved–and the transgressions of that code.

Miles keeps readers aware of the degrees of certainty/uncertainty as she fills in gaps. (And gaps there are, for records are sparse.) Sometimes parallel stories convey what might have been Ruth’s, Ashley’s, or Rose’s experiences. Sometimes data is more probable. As an English major trained in the days of close reading, I really appreciated the analysis of the wording of the inscription on the sack by Ruth. And in the spirit of that method, whether or not Ruth meant to achieve any of the effects observed doesn’t matter, so long as the effects are in the text.

It is refreshing to read a history that is not a tale of military heroes and their conquests, but of people and their daily lives, trials and triumphs. All unified by a gift from mother to daughter, Ashley’s sack.



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Mexico in the Early 20th Century

Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, and Revolution in the Borderlands by Kelly Lytle Hernández

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am on a mission to learn more non-USA history of the Americas, and a review nudged me toward this book. All that was already familiar to me in the book was the landownership of the US wealthy in Mexico and how that pushed our government to cooperate with Mexico’s government, at least for a time. This book fleshed that out along with the displacement of indigenous and other exploitation and the unrest that capitalism promoted.

This book was a good entrance into a small portion of Mexican history. It covered a ten-year period, focused on a few people, but did give about 50 years of background. It was clearly organized and at first whole sections were devoted to one person or event. When people were reintroduced after much text, there were short phrases reminding of their role. Toward the end it got more populated and more complex between more people joining the struggle and the struggles within the group. And battles won and lost, mostly lost. The introduction had indicated a winning, so I kept reading and hoping. Women had a role too, and while there wasn’t a lot of detail about them, they were not overlooked.

A word about the title. “Bad Mexicans” is what the rebels were called by the government they resisted. And one reason for rebelion was that President Diaz , who had campaigned on following the constitution and not allowing reelection, found ways to extend his reign.

Perhaps the review that prompted me to read the book was this one on Democracy Now! It might interest you too: https://www.democracynow.org/2022/5/10/bad_mexicans_kelly_lytle_hernandez_revolution



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Somewhat Scrappy

I’ve been reading Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s the fourth and last in the series, Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I’d read and enjoyed the first two, then missed that 3 and 4 were translated. One problem with 800-page intense books is finding stopping places! But I managed to do a lot of mental quilting and a bit of stitching and scrap control.

Way back in October I had dug out an orphan block to use as center in a guild medallion project. ( https://knitnkwilt.wordpress.com/2020/10/15/turkey-in-the-straw/ ) I don’t really like to wait for next clues, so it was easier to let it sit till there were three. One more is due next month. Three was enough to start sketching options.

Every two months two borders are suggested and directions given. Of course at any time we can do our own thing including figuring out our own measurements. I sorta thought I’d consider options offered first, but design my own if I felt the need.

The first two suggested options were four-patch or pinwheel blocks. That was easy because there is no way pinwheels fit my center. But the four-patch didn’t work either. My orphan piece measured 23.5 x 23.5. Because it was set on point already, I didn’t feel the need of a resting border. The first border was designed for a piece 24.5. I could trim to 22.5, add a row of one-inch squares followed by a row of two-inch squares for a workable modification. I’ve had time only for the one-inch row.

The reds are scraps; the background isn’t. The 2-inch row will be the medium blue, part scrap and part the batik of the center for some continuity. The next row will be dark blue. I have yet to decide whether to point the dog-ear triangles in or out. And sketching hasn’t solved it. I’ll probably have decided by next month. The third two options were square-in-a-square or flying geese. Again an easy choice of block, but undecided where to put background/pattern colors.

Then since I stitched the last of my prepared leader/ender pieces, I had to press some 2-patch pieces so I could start on 4-patch blocks.

I’ll set them aside for some 54-40-or-fight or Jacob’s Ladder blocks.

The 15th is Scrap Happy Day. Visit Kate’s blog to see how much scraps can earn and links to some serious scrap usage. https://talltalesfromchiconia.wordpress.com/2021/04/15/scraphappy-april-5/

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Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear DisasterVoices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book of people telling their experiences after the Chernobyl nuclear incident. Relatives of people who had worked to contain the burn out, people who directed evacuation, people who helped destroy homes, gardens, and the very earth that was too radioactive to remain, people who later moved into the Zone in spite of everything.

A few moments stand out for me. A nuclear engineer desperately trying to get government oficials to act for peoples’ safety, being brushed aside because a government person higher up had said all was well. A person sent in to measure radioactivity who wasn’t allowed to tell the people living there that what was happening. People planting peas because it was in the plan, and they hadn’t been told otherwise. People who had to work to contain the reaction because the radiation was so great it interfered with the functioning of robots. People in hospitals who were so radioactive they could not have visitors.

It is not an easy book to read–maybe three or four interviews at a time. But it is an important book to read to vicariously experience the immense power of a nuclear reactor gone awry. Freak accident though it was, it is important not to be unprepared should there be another one.

ETA link to documentary and essay mentioned in comment below.

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A Native American Novel

Yearly, my county library chooses a book for “Everybody Reads” month in February and schedules multiple related events, including an evening with the author as speaker. This year’s selection was unusually good.

There ThereThere There by Tommy Orange

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel tells of several Urban Indians whose lives converge in a pow wow in Oakland, CA. A thoroughly modern story, yet roots of the past appear in the Prologue. I was especially intrigued by the section, “Urbanity.” Instead of showing separation between city and rural, reservation life, the section presents unity: “An Urban Indian belongs to the city, and cities belong to the earth. . . . The process that brings anything to its current form–chemical, synthetic, technological, or otherwise–doesn’t make the product not a product of the living earth” (11).

At first each chapter felt like a random vignette. Gradually an overlap of detail became apparent. The pace continued to quicken till it was a page turner at the end.

The meaning of “there” changed throughout, for me culminating at the end, emphasizing the identity formation that was a struggle for some of the characters.

This novel is told from multiple perspectives. While each adds information, many show the same scene from a different perspective, a much more satisfying use of the technique. The number of characters with issues avoided becoming a soap opera. I have yet to put my finger on the source of this success, but success it was. Problems did not dominate, though they were present. There were also vivid moments of strength.

Getting to “know” so many characters, with rather short vignettes, left me amazed at how well I felt I knew them. The idea of being a person behind masks is made explicit in the tales of Tony Loneman; however, it is stated in the Javier Martas quotation in the headnote to Part I: “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it”(13). I’m left feeling I should reread to see how it applies to others.

The ending, so often a problem, is here quite successful. It is motivated by all that has gone before; it is believable; it is satisfyingly ambiguous with hints of the future.

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A Novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Water DancerThe Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not your ordinary underground railroad story. Myth and magical realism combine to trade one set of dangers for another. It is more a story of the main character, Hiram Walker’s development. And of relationships.

The novel is narrated by the older Hiram (frequently addressed as Hi)  looking back on his youth. Reflections on youthful decisions increase as the novel progresses. Hi’s growth is motivated and believable. The pace of narration is steady with mostly moderate ups and downs (a few more dramatic).

The life of slavery is neither romanticized nor told in harrowing detail. Because Hi is a house slave, we do not see the hard labor. Brutality is referenced more than it is shown. Although more attention is given to positive experiences of caring for one another and community, there are constant reminders that even so, the Tasked, as slaves are called, are not free.

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A Novel

The Dark Flood RisesThe Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with so many good novels, the first read is but an introduction. Many more encounters will be needed before getting to know it.

There are so many characters that at first I didn’t think there was a main character (in spite of book jacket naming Fran). But as the novel progressed, I realized Fran was central. However, she is not the sort of person I like–so needing to be needed. Still, one does not have to like a character to be intrigued by their thoughts and encounters.

All the characters–or at least almost all–have some connection to aging or death. Fran is in her 70s as are Jo and Teresa, friends from her youth. Jo had a friend, Owen; Owen has a friend, Bennett. Christopher, Fran’s son, has lost his girlfriend to a sudden illness; Christopher goes to the Canary Islands to visit Bennett and Ivor. Each character has several vignettes. As I read, I began to think that if a person were named, they would eventually have a vignette. Almost true, but not quite.

So with all these old folks, we get a variety of attitudes toward aging. Yet none of the characters exist merely to be illustrations. They are developed proportionately to their space in the novel. For now I’m thinking Fran, Christopher, Jo, and Teresa as main characters, and the rest as subordinate. I may add Owen to the main list. Not sure.

Action is not a part of this novel. Everyone plods along, thinking thoughts, having conversations. Drama is minimized (having to abandon a car because of flooded roads; an evening with a daughter that could have been emotional is pretty flat).

The narration is 99% omniscient author; however, at least twice she says something like, we can’t know what happened then, or we can’t know what he thought about this. An interesting break in the pattern–in breaking expectations makes us aware of expectations and conventions.

The novel felt finished; I almost missed the “Envoi.” I don’t think it was needed.

Besides aging, two other social issues are present. Sara, the girlfriend who died young, was doing a documentary on refugees; Poppet, Fran’s daughter, is researching climate change issues. As readers we are aware of these issues, but not in a heavy handed way.

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