One Person, No Vote

Carol Anderson’s previous book, White Rage, is one of the most important books I’ve read in recent years. It lays out clearly and methodically how white people have pushed back against every advance black Americans have made since the Civil War. So of course I was going to read her book on voter suppression. The question was just whether I could bear to read it before the election. I decided to go ahead and do that, because I figured depending on how the election goes next week, it might be even worse to read afterward.

Much like White Rage, this book clearly lays out how those in power have worked to make voting difficult to impossible for Americans of color and poor Americans. And it’s not just Republicans, although they’ve been the primary culprits in recent years. Anderson also recounts how southern Democrats instituted ridiculous and arbitrary tests for voter registration and how, more recently, Democrats (like Republicans) have been guilty of rigging voting districts in their favor through gerrymandering.

Each chapter details a different way that voting is made difficult or reduced the power of certain people’s votes. Besides strict registration laws and gerrymandering, there are voter ID laws and the purging of voter rolls, as well as uneven enforcement of the laws in place. There’s data and stories and so much information to enrage you, but instead of recounting some of the individual shocking stories (of which there are so many), I want to focus on just a couple of seemingly common-sense reforms that actually strip people of their voting rights.

For one, there’s voter ID. I live in a state that requires a photo ID to vote. As someone who drives, I’ve never seen it as a big deal. I almost always have my licence on me anyway. But many older people (and, increasingly, younger people) do not drive, so they won’t have a drivers licence. Back in 2002, the Carter-Ford Commission found that around 19 million Americans who were qualified to vote didn’t have a photo ID. Most of these people were young, elderly, poor, or black. And, for these folks, getting an ID isn’t necessarily easy. In Indiana, where free IDs were supposedly to be made available, the documentation needed to get the ID, such as a birth certificate, was often costly and difficult to obtain. An important thing to keep in mind here is that a process that seems simple to you may not be simple to everyone. And then there are people working to make the process harder, by closing offices that issue IDs. So those with limited resources and power lose the power of the ballot when they’re the ones who need that power most. And all this to combat a problem (voter impersonation) that barely even exists, if it exists at all.

Then there are the voter purges. This is something that has been in the headlines this year, particularly in Georgia, where the secretary of state, who is running for governor, removed hundreds of thousands of people from the voter rolls, many of them for not voting in past elections. Purges also take place to remove dead people or those who have moved away from the state. In a way, it seems sensible. It makes sense to want to have clean lists of who’s registered. But, as with voter ID, this seems to be a reform intended to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. And people often get misidentified and improperly removed, not even finding out until they go to vote. If a small handful of people slip by and vote in multiple states, does that justify taking away the voting rights of thousands upon thousands of people? No. The answer is no. Anderson clearly explains how these purges create a much bigger problem than the problem they’re intended to solve.

Other problems include the closing of voting precincts, usually in minority communities; the lack of adequate, functional voting machines (guess where?); limited hours at registration offices (where do you think?); and strict rules about whether and how to help people vote.

Reading the book made me even more determined than ever not to miss an opportunity to vote. I have to vote to speak up for those who can’t. As it is, Virginia is not one of the easier states for voting. We have voter ID laws, no early voting, and permanent disenfranchisement for those who commit felonies. I’m thinking about how I can help change that as well. This election season, I’ve been texting with Open Progress to help people check their registration and to get out the vote generally. But that’s just a drop in the bucket to combat a big problem. If you know of any organizations doing good work on voting rights, please share!

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Posted in Nonfiction | 9 Comments

The Caravaners

Baron Otto Von Ottridge, the narrator of this 1909 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, sees himself as a source of great wisdom and humor, the most interesting person at any gathering. And so, he assumes that he will have no trouble when he and his wife, Edelgard, take a vacation from journey to join a neighbor on a journey through England by horse-drawn caravan. But he has no end of trouble, much of it trouble that he isn’t even aware of.

It doesn’t take long for readers to see that the Baron is a ridiculous piece of work. Von Arnim uses his own words, completely lacking in self-awareness, to brilliantly skewer him. At first, the skewering, and the book itself, are comic in nature, often involving the kind of travel mishaps you’d expect on this kind of journey. The fact that he’s a snob who’s full of himself just makes the mishaps more hilarious.

Eventually, though, he starts to look more sinister, as you realize how his overbearing personality affects his wife. What must it be like to live with a man who openly avows this philosophy?

Indeed, the perfect woman does not talk at all. Who wants to hear her? All that we ask of her is that she shall listen intelligently when we wish, for a change, to tell her about our own thoughts, and that she should be at hand when we want anything. Surely this is not much to ask. Matches, ash-trays, and one’s wife should be, so to speak, on every table; and I maintain that the perfect wife copies the conduct of the matches and the ash-trays and combines being useful with being dumb.

The good news is that the journey being Edelgard out of her shell. As their travel companions treat her as an equal member of the party, she begins to change her manner. It’s not even that they seem to go out of their way to be kind, it’s just the change of society that has an effect. But the Baron barely notices, mostly commenting on her behavior when it means she’s not at his beck and call or not putting on the perfect face of good German womanhood.

Although the marriage does provide a dark undercurrent to the story, Von Arnim plays it light the whole time by staying thoroughly inside the Baron’s ridiculous mind. It’s an impressive work of characterization that is both uncomfortable and hilarious.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 8 Comments

In the Woods

I’ve been slow to read Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, not because I didn’t think I’d enjoy them but because I really didn’t want a new series to read. But since I’ve finished the Patrick O’Brian books, that’s less of an issue right now. And I’ve been in a mood for good crime (hence my recent reads of some classic Ruth Rendells). So now seemed as good a time as any to give the series a try. And I liked this book very much!

The story brings together two of my favorite crime fiction tropes — cold cases and memory loss — and combines it with an enjoyably dark murder mystery. The central mystery is the murder of Katy Devlin, a 12-year-old girl whose body was found in an archaeological dig being conducted in preparation for the construction of a new highway.

Complicating the story is the fact that, decades earlier, two children disappeared near the site of Katy’s murder. And a further complication is that the detective on Katy’s case, Rob Ryan, was with the two children at the time of their disappearance. He remembers almost nothing about it, and his parents sent him to England shortly after. Now back in Ireland, he’s going by his middle name, has an English accent, and has kept his connection to that long-ago crime a secret from everyone but his partner, Cassie Maddox.

The book follows the investigation of the murder and its possible connection to the disappearance, a piece of the investigation that of course is difficult for Rob. And Rob himself makes some ridiculous choices along the way, and these choices put Cassie in a personal and professional bind. The two are close friends as well as partners, and their relationship becomes as important as the crime story. There’s one part of their story that I found rather clunky, but I was overall as interested in them as I was in the mystery.

My only complaint is that the book did drag a tiny bit toward the middle, but right about the time I started to get impatient, big questions started to get answered, and these raised more questions, as well as some significant fallout.

Overall, this was an immensely satisfying book. I liked the messiness of it, and the way it wove together so many interesting threads. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 15 Comments

Lament

Deirdre Monaghan is sick with nerves before a harp competition when she meets Luke Dillon. He calms her down, accompanies her on the flute in an impromptu warm-up, and then pushes her toward the best performance of her life. She is immediately smitten.

But there’s some weird stuff going on. Four leaf clovers everywhere. Strangers in the shadows. And so on. It turns out the Deirdre has caught the attention of the faerie world.

This is Maggie Stiefvater’s first book, and it’s a fun read, although it’s not nearly as good at the Raven Cycle or The Scorpio Races. Deirdre is a likable character, although sometimes she comes across as a little too special and much too disdainful of other girls. Some people’s behavior seemed strange in a way that I couldn’t entirely attribute to the influence of faerie. But the main faerie story is enjoyably sinister and eerie, just as a faerie story could be.

I even found myself interested in Deirdre and Luke’s relationship, despite the many, many alarm bells around it. The book does a good job of acknowledging all the alarm bells while also capturing sense of just being swept away by feelings and unable to think rationally. Again and again, I thought Deirdre was doing something ridiculous (and she was), but I understood that she was guided by something other than good sense.

Good sense, by the way, appears mostly in the form of James, Deirdre’s best friend. He’s absolutely the most likable character in the book. Their relationship does get complicated in the book, but I appreciated the way everything developed there. It honors friendship as a true and real thing, while acknowledging that relationships and complicated, and I always like that.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend this as an introduction to Maggie Stiefvater’s books. But if you’ve read and enjoyed her other books and if you’re as much a fan of faerie stories as I tend to be, this is worth a read. I expect I’ll read the sequel, too, pretty soon.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | Leave a comment

To Fear a Painted Devil

This 1965 Ruth Rendell novel is more of a whodunit than I’m used to from her. It’s set in a neighborhood called Linchester, built on the site of what was once a large manor house and park. The families that live there watch each other’s activities and gossip about who’s having money problems, who’s not quite classy enough, and who’s having an affair with whom. It’s clear that there’s a lot of tension in the community, and inside particular households, even if everything looks calm on the outside.

The community comes together for the birthday party of Tamsin Selby, the unhappy wife of Patrick. At the party, Patrick is stung by wasps when their nest is disturbed. The next morning he is dead of heart failure.

Initially, it’s a straightforward enough case of death by natural causes, but as Dr. Greenleaf, a neighbor who was at the party, hears more and more gossip about the Selbys and details about Patrick’s death, the more he begins to wonder. And so we have the mystery.

There are suspects aplenty: the unhappy wife, the spurned mistress, the mistress’s brother, the wife’s lover, the lover’s wife, and so on. And bits of evidence point to one and then the other until all the details fall into place and the solution appears. Although I’m not sure a reader could definitively solve this mystery, it is nicely constructed, built on what seem to be throwaway details that become important only after the answer is revealed.

To Fear a Painted Devil is Rendell’s second novel and her first standalone book. It doesn’t have the same psychological potency of some of her later books, although she does show some of the interest in social issues around class, domestic abuse, and personal relationships that inform her later books. Traditional whodunits aren’t my favorite kind of crime novels, but this was a good one. Rendell was truly one of the greats.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 2 Comments

Stoner

A few years ago, Stoner, a 1965 novel by John Williams, took the book world by storm. Just about everyone was reading and adoring it. I’ve finally read it, and, while I don’t exactly adore it, I found plenty in it to like.

The novel tells the life story of William Stoner, born on a Missouri farm in the late 19th century. His hard-working, but uneducated father encourages William to go to college at the University of Missouri to study agriculture and perhaps learn something to help the struggling family farm survive. The studies of soil and so on go well enough, but it was literature that captured William’s imagination. So he proceeds to study literature and eventually become a professor at the university.

He marries, writes a book, has a child, and so on. It’s an ordinary life, eventual in the way any life in eventful in that there are personal and professional conflicts, relationships that come and go, successes and failures. He ultimately leaves a small impact on the world around him, perhaps not as great as he could have or as he hoped to, but his life is pleasing enough that he doesn’t want to let it go.

I imagine that it’s that sense of disappointed contentment that has captured so many readers’ interests. William has some beautiful successes, such as when he manages to outwit a professional rival in a hilarious passive-aggressive maneuver. But he also has some rotten luck, as when that same professional rival gains power in the university. There’s a sense that he hasn’t gotten what he deserves, but also that he’s lucky to have gotten as much as he did. I certainly found that balance of good and bad to be compelling and real.

The writing in the book is also admirably clean, clear, and evocative. It’s the kind of spare prose that, when done with precision and care, I tend to love. Here, for instance, is a (rather relatable) moment from early in the novel when William Stoner contemplates himself:

He became conscious of himself in a way that he had not done before. Sometimes he looked at himself in a mirror, at the long face with its thatch of dry brown hair, and touched his cheekbones; he saw the thin wrists that protruded inches out of his coat sleeves; and he wondered if he appeared as ludicrous to others as he did to himself.

That tension between self-image and others’ perceptions seems to be a major concern of the book, and I found all of that pretty interesting.

But the book has a serious, nearly fatal flaw in the characterization of William’s wife, Edith. The two meet and marry quickly, without really taking the time to get to know each other. In fact, the book offers almost no clear sense of why they married, other than William found Edith attractive and she didn’t care enough to object. Or something. She appears to exist merely to be an obstacle to William’s happiness because shortly after they marry, she turns into the worst wife imaginable. There are some vague hints that she was abused, but that doesn’t do much to create sympathy for her. For most of the book, she’s cruel in multiple and changing ways, until it’s convenient for the plot for her to stop being cruel. In essence, we’re given no sense of her inner life.

I suppose it’s possible that Edith is meant to show how people are inscrutable to each other. She surely has reasons for what she does, but we have no opportunity to learn, just as William has no opportunity to learn because she cuts herself off to him. I don’t quite buy it, though. There’s a little too much attention to her (sometimes bizarre) actions when she’s alone for the problem to be merely one of perspective. It sort of makes me wish for Edith Stoner first-person fanfic that keeps her cruelty but gives her motivation.

Other incidental characters suffer a bit from this lack of characterization, too. But their presence is minor enough for this not to bother me much. It’s the mix of intimacy and inscrutability that makes Edith a problem. Enough of a problem that I can’t join those who rapturously adore this novel. It’s not bad. There’s much to enjoy about it. But that emptiness at its heart keeps it from being great.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey

I noted in my review of Blue at the Mizzen that the book felt like a transition to a new era, rather than the conclusion it ended up being when Patrick O’Brian died. At his death, he’d written almost three chapters of the next volume, and those chapters are presented here.

It’s impossible to properly review this book, since its not a complete story, but I can say that it’s a good start. Jack and Stephen are called back from Chile, with Jack to take up his new command as an admiral. However, family relationships are proving complicated, as Jack’s daughters appear to be jealous of any bit of attention that Stephen’s daughter receives, and they are responding by bullying her. Jack and Stephen decide to bring all the girls aboard ship, where Brigid’s previous experience at sea will give her a leg up over the other girls, perhaps ultimately putting them back on an equal footing. And the new object of Stephen’s affection, Christine Wood, is being approached by one of the men on the ship, and Stephen has to resort to a duel to put a stop to it.

So these few chapters show this to be another shipboard book, but one that’s full of some of the domestic drama that I enjoy. Christine gets a little more time to grow as a character, and perhaps a full book would have let me warm up to her relationship with Stephen. It’s too bad we don’t get to see how it all turns out!

The volume includes both the text of the typed manuscript and a copy of the hand-written original, with the two versions presented on facing pages. Where the typed manuscript ends, the hand-written version continues on for several pages. I didn’t spend much time comparing the typed and hand-written versions, and the handwriting is difficult enough that I didn’t put much effort into deciphering the final pages. It was fun to see where the story was heading and to imagine where it might end up. But Blue at the Mizzen, with its concluding promise of smoother waters ahead, serves better as a final volume. This is more of a curiosity for fans (and probably anyone who made it to the 21st volume would count in that number.)

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is a psychologist who served on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Part of her work, which involved trying to understand acts of evil committed during apartheid, led her to interview Eugene de Kock, one of the government’s most brutal officers, so brutal that he was known as the “Prime Evil.” Meeting him in prison, she finds an apparently sad and broken man, and she couldn’t help but respond with kindness, even as her response revolted her.

In A Human Being Died That Night, Gobodo-Madikizela reflects on her interviews with de Kock, the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in general, and the difficulty of forgiveness. It’s a challenging book in more than one respect.

Although the book offers a short history of apartheid in its appendix, this book really isn’t a history. It’s much more personal than that, as Gobodo-Madikizela attempts to pick apart her own reactions to de Kock, to consider whether her kindness is misguided and whether forgiveness is possible, or even desirable, in cases of human rights abuses like those of de Kock. There were moments when I wished I understood the history better, so I could have a context for the incidents she talks about.

One of the things I appreciated about this book is the way the author considers the interactions between understanding and forgiveness and excuse-making. She encourages understanding not as a way to make excuses, but as a way to recognize our own vulnerabilities to evil and how we as individuals and societies can find ourselves on a path we didn’t intend to be on. I was especially struck by her section on how the White people of South Africa became numb to the violence of apartheid to the point that they didn’t see it anymore. (I feel that danger in our own country right now.) She also talks about how people define and redefine morality in light of circumstances. She considers the possibility of a mental defect and the ways people who are committing evil are able to cut themselves off from what they are doing. She asks a lot of hard questions, but doesn’t come to any clear conclusions. I’m not sure that it’s possible to come to any clear conclusions. As a Christian, that’s why I believe that, ultimately, judgment is left to God.

Of course, even if judgment is to be left to God, there must be consequences in this world. Gobodo-Madikizela doesn’t spend much time on what specific punishments should be meted out to those who do evil. She’s more interested in the psychic consequences, on both the evil doer and the survivors. She believes that dialogue leading to forgiveness is good for everyone involved and for the wider society. She makes it clear, however, that this is hard work, not just saying some words of absolution and moving on as if nothing has happened. Some sort of contrition and acknowledgment of the wrong is part of the process, as is the understanding that everyone involved is, in fact, a human being.

I’m still mulling over the ideas in this book, deciding how I think they apply to situations here in the U.S. For instance, I listened the other day to a Reveal episode about children being taken from their families at the border and Gobodo-Madikizela’s ideas got me thinking about the mental processes that made the agents think that was OK, how so many Americans even see this as a moral choice to do this (and the episode delves into this as well). It doesn’t feel like time for forgiveness, not while it’s still happening, and not while the perpetrators show no signs of understanding it’s wrong, but I value this book for helping me understand what may be happening in their minds. Maybe, someday, those next healing steps will be possible for the victims and for the country that turned its back.

Posted in Nonfiction | 2 Comments

Silver Sparrow

When I finished Tayari Jones’s most recent novel, An American Marriage, I was so impressed that I immediately put her previous book, Silver Sparrow, on hold at the library. It, too, is a very good book about people caught up in an impossible situation that is mostly not of their own making. Their situation leads them to make choices that are at times infuriating, but are almost always understandable. I love this kind of complexity.

The story centers on two young black women from Atlanta, sisters, although only one of them knows it. Their father, James, is a bigamist, as we learn in the opening line of the novel. Dana, who narrates the first half of the novel, is the daughter from his secret marriage. She’s smart and ambitious, but she often feel that she gets nothing but the crumbs left over from his other daughter, Chaurisse.

Chaurisse, who takes over the narration in the second half of the book, has her own insecurities. She may be the daughter of two successful entrepreneurs (her father owns a limo business and her mother a beauty salon), but she feels homely and gets left out of most of the social activities around her. She sees Dana as a “silver girl,” shiny and beautiful, and envies them for it.

The book delves into the characters’ family histories, exploring how James ended up married to two women and the fallout of that choice. At times, the layers piled up a bit too much, with timelines merging together in a confusing way, but this is a minor issue. The emotional momentum of the story is always clear. The characterization is where this novel really shines. In American Marriage, the elements of plot, character, and writing come together more seamlessly. But this was still extremely enjoyable.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments

The Puttermesser Papers

Ruth Puttermesser is a single, Jewish New Yorker in her 30s who, despite being a well-read intellectual, is stuck in a dull civil service job. In fact, her intellect got in her way, causing her to be demoted from a dull job with some influence to a duller job with no influence. The opening story in this collection of stories by Cynthia Ozick paints a picture of Puttermesser that is remarkably specific and idiosyncratic while also being extremely relatable. Who wouldn’t prefer to get drunk on words and ideas while doing good in the world, rather than passing paper around to implement others’ (not so great and useful) ideas?

In the second story, Puttermesser takes action. Almost without realizing it, she creates a golem, a gigantic and growing lusty female one named Xanthippe. With Xanthippe’s help, Puttermesser becomes mayor of New York and fixes everything. The city is a paradise! For a while. The following stories follow similar patterns, of Puttermesser getting something she wanted, and then finding that things don’t turn out as she hoped. Her potential lover has different ideas from her, the cousin she help doesn’t need what she offers, even eternity falls short.

The stories were originally published separately and are, for the most part, not connected to each other, aside from having the same central character, facing disappointment in yet another way as she ages yet another decade. You might think from my description that the book is dark, but, for the most part, it really isn’t. Ozick’s wit and wordplay and sense of humorous juxtaposition keeps the book from wallowing in gloom. It’s dark comedy, which is often my preferred form for humor.

I wasn’t prepared for the episodic form of this book, which was a shame, because I was more in the mood for a story I could sink into, and that never happened with this. If I’d realized that it was disconnected stories, I would have chosen a different time to read it, but once I was in, I was interested enough to continue, and it is a good book, even if it didn’t quite line up with my mood.

However, there was a point near the end where the story got much too dark for me, where there’s an act of sexual violence that came out of the blue and left me with a sour taste in my mouth for the book as a whole. I imagine that the news this week made it even more stomach curdling than it would have been otherwise, but, as it is, I was pretty angry when I finished. It’s a minor moment, and, on reflection, it’s not enough to turn me against the book entirely, but I was very much not in the mood for that plot right now, especially when it was so entirely unnecessary.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 4 Comments