The History of New York through 101 Objects, by Sam Roberts. Simon & Schuster (September 23, 2014), 160 pages.
An innovative approach to researching the past through the objects that people created, lived with, and used. Here the focus is on New York City and how its people define themselves.
When historians began to include people who left no written documents in their narratives, they had to develop new ways of doing history. One method was to examine the objects that people had used and to think about what those objects could say about the people who made and used them. Historical museums began to apply what was being discovered to their collections to help viewers imagine life in the past.
In 2012 the director of the British Museum created an elegant book that featured the objects in his institution in The History of the World in 100 Objects. His book gave me a new appreciation of a world connected by trade rather than by the nation states which were not even present until the relatively recent past. Since then other historians have followed the example of Ferguson and used his approach to tell the story of a variety of places and institutions. For example, the Smithsonian Institution has published its History of the United States in 100 Objects. This History of New York City is part of this trend, as its author makes clear.
Sam Roberts is Urban Affairs Editor for The New York Times and does a weekly TV show about the city. Having covered New York for “almost 50 years,” he knows it well. He also blogs about local history and has published a book about Grand Central Station and its impact on people’s lives. In 2012 he did a feature in The New York Times of 50 objects of the city’s history, which he has expanded into this book. In the introduction, he describes his goals and how he chose what to include. While he describes his choices as subjective and “whimsical,” and also views them as “transformative,” “emblematic,” and “enduring.” He excluded buildings and human beings, dead or alive. In his words, his purpose was to write
A biography of material things–things, some remarkable, some mundane, that illuminate history through their unique prism.
Roberts seeks to write history that “informs the present” and helps New Yorkers understand who they are. Yet the book has great relevance for US history more generally given the significant role that New York has always played outside its boundaries.
I received a prepublication ebook of this book to review, but it only contained a sampling of the objects which Roberts includes; 44 out of 160 pages, 6 of 101 objects. The table of contents indicates that the full book starts with the rocks under the city and its early Native American inhabitants. The list of objects indicates that Roberts has fulfilled his goal of writing a truly diverse and inclusive book, even though the sampling of chapters I received did not.
Although I have not seen the entire book, I am glad to recommend it to those interested in New York City and in the way objects can give us new insights into our past in all its diversity.
Near the Hope, by Jennifer Davis Carey. Blue Mongoose Publishing (2013), Paperback, 250 pages
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A beautifully written novel about a young woman leaving Barbados and coming to Brooklyn in the early 1900s, a true story recreated by her granddaughter.
On the cover of Near the Hope is a photograph of Dellie Standard, attractive, hopeful but hesitant before the camera. She is the woman at the center on this novel. Her story is simple, much like that of other young women who came to this country. What sets it apart is the grace and wisdom with which her granddaughter tells her story.
The book opens on Barbados in the tiny settlement of Taborvilla, located literally “near the Hope.” Dellie’s mother dies after making her daughters promise to leave their lush, impoverished island. She had explained why they must go. “Dellie, this place is a part of what I am, of who I am. I know how to live poor, M’ma knows how to live poor. We have learned how to manage the needs of the Big House. To hold a part of us away so it doesn’t touch us. But it will end here.”
Dellie wants to stay until she encounters the old master of the Big House and understands her mother’s insistence. Following her newly married sister, Dellie goes to Brooklyn and becomes part of the Bajun, or Barbados, community there. The love of family and friends sustains her through problems finding work and starting a new life. Pain and major tragedy ensue, but at the heart of the novel is a poignant love story. The ending displays the particular “magical realism” of the Caribbean.
Jennifer Davis Carey has degrees from Harvard and has worked in education and public service. Her grandmother lived with her family when she was growing up and she listened to her stories as well as conducting extensive research for the book. This is her first novel, but her website suggests that she plans to continue writing family sagas. She has also posted there photographs from Barbados and Brooklyn from the era of her book alongside quotations from it. The title of the novel comes from the letters which Dellie sent back to Barbados addressed to “Taborvilla, Near the Hope.” For Carey the address is also a metaphor for the women who migrated hoping for better lives.
One unusual element of the novel is the attention that the author gives to the intolerance that blacks exhibit toward each other. Dellie’s father dislikes her boyfriend because, like many Barbados black he is also descended from workers from India. When Dellie gets to Brooklyn, she discovers that blacks from Barbados regard African Americans as “foreigners” and vice versa. When she goes out with a man from the American South who is a railroad porter, neither his friends nor her family approve.
I find it difficult to say why I found this novel so delightful. Carey writes in a simple, gentle style. She notes the influence of Paule Marshall, another American author with roots in Barbados and a longtime favorite of mine. Like Marshall, Carey catches the contradictions of life in phrases like “beautiful, ugly.” Carey is especially good at descriptive writing. She writes about the Bajan communty getting ready for a party.
With the pots and pans put away, the kitchen and the front room became the salon where doemestics and needle workers of the tiny West Indian community transformed themselves into the women they were. Hair was brushed smooth, curled with the hot iron and pinned up. The soft rustle of tissue paper rippled through the room as lace collars and cuffs were unfolded for pressing. Shoes were buffed to a shine and corsets tied to a breathtaking firmness.
At times Carey creates the context for events such as Dellie’s departure by describing what is happening on the periphery.
The wharf and all the area by the Careenage and inner habor were teeming with people. Stevedores, shirtless, loaded last minute cargo and provisions. Families paid the island’s two photograhers for a last pose in front of Lord Nelson’s statue before separating forever. Up-country women presented their wares, one basket in their hands, another poised confidently on their heads.
Less happy words tell of Dellie’s unhappiness when she takes a factory job and gets thrown out.
“The worst was not being seen. Not being a person. The worst was seeing my photograph in the newspaper with the woman who claimed to help me….The shop saw me as a pair of hands. She saw me and my black eye for her use. Nothing more. The same for the other women lined up at the machines as if they, too, were part of the machinery.”
In some ways Near the Hope is similar to Three Souls which is also a granddaughter writing about her Chinese grandmother. Yet for me, Carey brings to her plot much more life and sense of reality.
I am grateful to Library Thing and Blue Mongoose Press for receiving a review copy of this book. I seldom know what to expect with review copies. They can be good or awful or anything in between. But sometimes they are surprising discoveries like Near the Hope which makes the practice worthwhile.
I enthusiastically recommend this book to all readers who enjoy a gentle, well-written novel. I look forward to another book by Carey.
”Poets in the Kitchen,” by Paule Marshall. The essay that Carey says inspired her own writing.
Brown Girl, Brownstone, by Paule Marshal. An classic by and about a girl whose family came to Brooklyn from Barbados. It is a story of coming of age in a highly prized brownstone and includes a description of the “Poets in the Kitchen.”
Three Souls, by Janie Chang. William Morrow Paperbacks (2014), Paperback, 496 pages.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
An imaginative novel about a Chinese woman who is helped after her death by her “three souls” who lead her to understand her life and make amends for trouble she caused.
Janie Chang has used stories from her own family’s oral histories in composing her novel. For generations, her family had lived in Pinghu, the town where much of her story takes place, until the family fled the civil war fought by the Chinese Nationalists and Communists and the Japanese invasion. Chang herself was born in Taiwan and grew up listening to the stories her father told “about ancestors who encountered dragons, ghosts, and immortals and about family life in a small Chinese town.” On her website, Chang tells the original stories that she heard and reshaped into her novel.
Traditional Chinese beliefs provide the framework for Three Souls. Leiyin unexpectedly dies while still a young woman, and meets three supernatural beings, her “three souls.” They will help her to sort out what has happened and to make retribution for harm she has caused in order to move into the afterlife. She had been the daughter of an aristocratic family who had become infatuated with a handsome leftist writer, Hanchen. Her fantasies about him became intertwined with her desire to attend college. Because her father refused to allow her to continue her education, she ran away, got caught, and was forced to marry a dull man from a remote village. Despite finding some happiness and giving birth to a daughter, Leiyin continued to be caught up with people from her past. Reimagining what she had done, she looked for ways to ensure the happiness of others.
I found much to enjoy in Chang’s novel. Her depiction of minor characters was often sharp. Sometimes, however, I felt the book did not live up to the potential of the story or the author’s purpose. Leiyin, the central figure in the novel, was probably its weakest character. She was incredibly naïve and selfish in her attempts to live out her fantasies with Hanchen. While ready to give herself totally to the man, she refused to see how problematic her actions were. The descriptions of their sexuality were also too explicit for my taste. At times the book read like a romance, but Hanchen was no saving hero.
Another problem concerns the historical context for Three Souls; a particularly turbulent time in Chinese history when the civil war was occurring between Nationalists and Communists, and the Japanese are invading. Chang has her characters say the right things about their beliefs and actions in support of both sides, but she fails to bring those beliefs to life as animating forces. The political aspects of the story are correct but flat, second-hand accounts.
Most of all, I was bothered by how Chang trivialized the “three souls” who help Leiyin find a way to move on. The three were an old man, a young woman and a figure like a bright light. I had no problem accepting them as a valid part of the story, but Chang never succeeded in making them real for me. Rightly or wrongly, I associated them with aspects of the character’s self, rather like the miniatures that Elif Shafak used in Black Milk. In Chang’s hands, they seemed like poorly drawn Jungian images of male and female archetypes.
Overall, I wish that Janie Chang had been more true to her ancestral stories and less eager to write a marketable story. I read some of the stories of her website, and I wished she had given us more of them. Maybe in her next book she will rely more on her authentic heritage.
I recommend this book to readers who interested in China and its people.
The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. Vintage, 1995. Paperback. 530 pages.
A Japanese classic telling the stories of four sisters of an aristocratic family losing their traditional prestige as the country modernizes before World War II.
The Maki0kas have been an influential family in Osaka, Japan, but the parents have died and their prosperity has declined. The two oldest sisters are married. Tsuruko and her husband occupy the “main house” with final authority over family affairs. Living in Osaka and then Tokyo, they regard preserving the family’s traditional prestige as their chief priority. Sachiko, her husband and her daughter live in Ashiya, a suburb of Osaka, and have adopted some western habits in their dress and home. They are also concerned about tradition and propriety, but are somewhat more flexible in their demands. The two younger sisters prefer to live with them than in the main house as they properly should. Yukiko, the third daughter, is passive and reserved. Although she is 30, she is still unmarried, in part because her family had rejected possible husbands as unworthy of her. Now few men are interested in her. Taeko, the youngest sister, is in some ways the opposite of Yukiko. She is rebellious, wants to earn money, and associates with men in ways that scandalize her family. She cannot marry until her sister does. Family interactions often center on the marriage possibilities for the two single sisters.
Junichiro Tanizaki is considered one of Japan’s most important authors. He tells the story of the sisters in an epic manner with lots of subplots and luxurious descriptions. His writing, in translation, resembles that of other world writers of the early and middle twentieth century. He gives us a look inside the lives of relatively prosperous, aristocratic Japanese families just before the outbreak of World War II. We witness how their households are run and how servants are treated. We visit Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms in the spring and observe the family rituals. Most of all we witness the required steps of arranging a marriage and the ways in which they are modified as the book progresses. References to the approach of war are muted and indirect. As Japan’s invasion of China drags on there is some effort to limit lavish displays of wealth and some of their friends in Europe are affected, but the Makioka family continue to focus narrowly on themselves. The prospect of war and the destruction of all the Makiokas hold dear hangs over the book, making their concerns for decorum and ritual seem even more fragile.
The story that Tanizaki tells is largely a domestic one. His focus is on his women characters whom he describes with sensitivity. The husbands are powerful, but that power derives from their connections to the Makioko women. Sachiko, caught in the middle between her older and younger sisters is particularly well drawn. Tanizaki is another example of a man capable of writing about women with sensitivity and skill.
The question of loyalty to family versus an individual’s right to choose whom to love and how to shape their lives has appeared in several books I have read recently. In Dependence and Love like Water are examples of family loyalty preventing marriage with spouses of different races and cultures. Four Sisters is a different variation on that theme. I was amazed by the elaborate rituals and investigations that a possible husband had to undergo. At times the real needs of the man and woman involved seemed irrelevant beside issues of how the family would be regarded by outsiders. Yet in Tanizaki’s hands, these practices and presumptions are simply part of the cultural world in which his characters live. They structure what is and is not considered possible, even if they are strikingly different from the world in which I live.
I wholeheartedly recommend this wonderful book to all who love big, international novels, somewhat traditionally written, that dig deeply into characters’ lives and to readers who appreciate sensitive depiction of women by male authors.
The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar. Harper Perennial (2007), Paperback, 321 pages.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A deeply moving novel exploring “the space between” a domestic servant in Bombay and her middle class Parsi mistress.
Few books have as appropriate a title as this one. It is the story of two strong women who are bonded together by gender, but remain divided by class. Bhima has worked for Sera and her family for over twenty years. Illiterate and mired in poverty herself, she has great respect for the power that Sera and her family have. Sera is a widow, gracious and generous to Bhima and her family. Flashbacks in the opening sections of the book reveal the pain both women have suffered and how they have provided help for each other. Sera has aided Bhima in many small ways and a few larger ones, including getting adequate medical care for her husband and paying for a college education for her granddaughter. Bhima is the only person who knows about the physical abuse Sera’s husband inflicted and has helped easy its pain. Yet the closeness of the two women has always been limited. Sera will not allow Bhima to sit on the furniture or eat out of her family’s dishes. (Umrigar explains that such behavior is not based on the Hindu caste system, but is typical of middle-class people in India of various faiths toward all those in poverty.)
Then a series of events threaten the close, but unequal relationship between the two women. With money from Sera, Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, is going to college and hoping to escape the slum in which they live. When unmarried Maya gets pregnant, Sera’s family orchestrates an abortion for her. Afterward, Maya has trouble starting over, especially when others are celebrating the pregnancy of Dinaz, Sera’s daughter. In an unusually respectful manner, Umrigar treats the issue of abortion without moralizing. The decision is a practical one; Maya cannot afford to raise a child on her own, much less go to college and live a more fulfilling life than her grandmother. The grief and resentment she feels is significant, however. Umrigar’s story gains momentum and depth as Bhima struggles with an impossible decision over what has happened to her granddaughter.
In Umrigar’s sensitive portrayals, both women have internal contradictions. Both understand that love and hate can be interwoven. Their differences are certainly a matter of class as Umrigar notes, but family loyalty is also significant. Bhima’s granddaughter chides her for loving Sera’s family more than her own. As I read, I kept thinking of the same question being raised by Toni Morrison in her The Bluest Eye. Additionally, in many books I’ve read recently, our discussions of family loyalty are framed by the possibility of cross-cultural marriage, but domestic service also raises the issue. There can also be a cost to the family of a woman who is “almost one of the family” whom she serves.
At the end of the book, Umrigar explains that Bhima was inspired by the servant in her own childhood Parsi home in Bombay. She had already described her relationship with this servant in her autobiographical First Darling of the Morning. Probably Sera’s family bears some resemblance to Umrigar’s own. Dinaz, Sera’s grown daughter, mirrors Umrigar’s efforts to treat her family’s servant with more equality. Although Umrigar has used Indian language to create the Bombay of her childhood, her exploration of a woman working as a domestic servant of another woman carries universal overtones for what that practices means around the globe. This is simply the best book I have read about women working for other women in their home.
The Space Between Us is a “must read” book for all who have worked as a domestic servant or have had another woman working for them. Besides it is a wonderfully well-written and engaging book.
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, by David Bryon Davis. Knopf (2014), Hardcover, 448 pages.
The third volume of a trilogy on slavery by one of America’s premier historians, a man who has helped to shape how we think about history of slavery today.
When David Bryon Davis published The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture in 1966, most historians considered the institution of slavery to be a minor local issue, best left to southerners, white of course, who relied on the documents of slave owners to tell its story. Davis was among the first to challenge this approach. He recognize the significance of slavery in American and international history. For him, slavery and the wealth it produced were key to settlement of the “New World” and the Industrial Revolution. In the second book of the trilogy, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823, he focused on why, after centuries of acceptance of slavery, a massive movement for its abolition came into existence. Alongside the influence of ideas from the Enlightenment and Dissenters such as Quakers, he addresses economic factors such as the justification of “free” labor. Much of what we know today about how slavery affected Africans has grown out of his initial writing.
After a gap of 50 years, Davis has completed what he always considered the third volume of his work on slavery. During the intervening years, he has had a busy career teaching and published his overview, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. In addition, other historians have built on his early work to create a rich body of information about various aspects of slavery and slave life. Such work has meant that Davis’s new book differs from the others in the trilogy with less attempt to survey the sweep of the topic and more attention to specific aspects of it such as the deliberate attempts to dehumanize slaves by their owners and the rise of the colonization movement advocating the removal of blacks to Africa. Davis stresses the importance of black abolitionists to the rise of a more militant movement in the 1830s and to the importance of their example of how capable blacks were ready for freedom. He also examines the political role of slave resistance and the presence of escaped slaves, viewing the Fugitive Slave Law as a critical step toward civil war and emancipation. In his eyes, the end of slavery was not inevitable and “the abolition of slavery in the Western Hemisphere was one of the profoundest achievements in human history, a crucial landmark of moral progress that we should never forget.”
In addition to his critical work on slavery, Davis has also been important in shaping what it means to do history. In the early years of his career, historians in the USA were divided between a somewhat elitist focus on intellectual history and “new social history” which concentrated on the lives of “inarticulate” people whom they believed (wrongly) could only be studied as groups and statistics. Davis refused to accept that dichotomy, addressing how ideas popular in a particular time and place had an impact and how those considered silent had played active and significant roles in the struggle for their own freedom. Many of his students went on to work in various ways in what we now call “cultural history,” an approach which incorporates post-modern thinking.
I usually do not read reviews by others before I write my own. This time I have relied on Eric Foner’s review in The Nation about Davis’s contributions to American history and on Marc Parry’s review in The Chronicle of Higher Education which credits Davis with contributing to the rise of cultural history.
Davis is always worth reading, but he writes primarily for an audience of other historians. I enthusiastically recommend his new book, but general readers might find his earlier, more sweeping works also meaningful.
The Murder of Lucy Kyte, by Nicola Upson. Faber and Faber, Paperback. Forthcoming, 2014.
Another enjoyable mystery in a series featuring a fictionalized Josephine Tey as she explores the cottage she has inherited. Like all the mysteries I enjoy, this series is more about the people than crime.
Josephine Tey was the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952), a theater and crime writer of early twentieth-century Great Britain. Nicola Upson has fictionalized Tey’s life in her series. Upson herself grew up in Suffolk, near the cottage featured here and heard stories of the “Red Barn Murder” as a child.
As the book opens, Tey learns that her godmother, a woman she barely remembers, has left her a cottage in Polstead, Suffolk. Hester Larkspur had been a close friend of Tey’s mother before leaving Inverness, Scotland, and going onto the stage where she gained fame playing in melodramas. Tey’s mother remained in their hometown after her marriage, and Tey grew up there. With the inheritance comes responsibility; Tey must look at Larkspur’s papers and deal with them properly or destroy everything.
The cottage just outside Polstead is close to the site of a famous nineteenth-century crime, The Red Barn Murder, which Larkspur had made into a play. (The murder really took place and you can find lots about it, the people involved and Polstead on the web.) When Tey first goes to the cabin she she has trouble making sense of what she finds there. Slowly she tries to sort out what happened to Hester Larkspur. A diary provides a fresh account of the Red Barn Murder, but it raises as many questions as it answers. Who is Lucy Kyte? Tey needs the help of old friends to sustain her as she encounters dangers in the present as well as in the past.
Because I had enjoyed the previous books in the series, I was glad to read this one. I found it the best of the lot. The structure with its book-within-a book sets it apart from most mysteries, and I liked Tey more as I became acquainted with her more here. The characters and how they respond to difficult situations are the focus of the book, not the crimes and their punishment. The exploration of Hester Larkspur’s life leads Tey back to thoughts about herself and the choices she has made. She mulls over questions like whether women should leave home to seek lives for themselves or if they must remain and sacrifice their lives to others. Upton presents women who have made various choices and seems particularly intent on bringing to life women who have been invisible in the past.
I recommend this book to those who like thoughtful, “cozy” mysteries.
Thanks to the publishers for sending me a pre-publication edition of this mystery as an ebook.