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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

October 17, 2019

Frederick DouglassFrederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight.  Simon & Schuster, 2018.

5 stars

The intellectual history of the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and a leading abolitionist and writer of the era.  Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in History.

David W. Blight is the Sterling Professor of History and Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University.  He has written and edited a dozen books, some specifically about Douglass and others about the context of Douglass’ life.  Many have won prizes. His new book has quickly become the definitive biography of Douglass’s life.  It has been widely read and discussed in all media.  I simply want to add my own words of praise and my personal response to it.

How do you write an intellectual history of man born and raised in an institution that specifically denied him the right to read and write?  Even if he became a man whose wisdom and speaking ability was among the greatest of our national history?  Blight has risen to the challenge using contemporary scholarships’ focus of Douglass’s use of words and language, first as a tool of survival for Douglass and later as the core of his oratory.  Never a theorist, Blight focuses closely what Douglass said and wrote and why he chose to express himself as he did.  The large narrative of Douglass’s life is always present for Blight, but the narrative focuses on how Douglass created power for himself and his people through words.

The narrative of Douglass’s childhood as slave is familiar to many of us partly because of the eloquence with which he told his own story in his amazing autobiographies.  Blight relies on Douglass’ own words while filling in details and exploring their context.  He looks at how words and language helped Douglass understand and survive the dehumanizing aspects of slave life.  Blight credits the attention that Douglass devoted to a book of oratory he studied as an adolescent, the same book that Lincoln was studying as a boy in Illinois.  It was a book with practical suggestions for would-be orators and included copies of various speeches supporting rights and full humanity for all.  Lots of quotes from Douglass and bits of information about the time and places he lived make this part of the book particularly fun to read.

As Douglass escaped slavery and moved into marriage and abolition, Blight widens his story.   Turning to a wider range of sources, Blight gives us a balanced picture of him, his followers and detractors.  The abolitionist movement, which formed the context for Douglass’ oratory, was a chaotic movement, not only attacked from the outside, but full of divisions and animosity.  The biggest spit was the debate over the means by which abolition was to be achieved; moral persuasion or politics and violence.  Douglass was an angry young black man, full of rhetoric rejecting his country and the Constitution.  As he moved from devotion to his mentor Garrison into the support of political liberation, he struck out at other abolitionists and his country itself. His famous “Fourth of July” Speech is an example of his anger.

The Douglass’ relationship with women was another divisive issue then and now. His friendship with white women scandalized his fellow workers and his enemies. Blight writes with great sensitivity about Douglass’s relationship to women while not sensationalizing it.  Douglass’s wife, Ann, was a capable but illiterate black woman who raised their five children with little involvement of her famous husband.  In addition, Douglass observed and admired the ways in women, white and black, contributed to the abolitionist movement.  He was so impressed that he became supportive of the early women’s rights, even attending Seneca Falls.  In the 1850s, an aristocratic English woman lived with the Douglass family working as a close assistant to him in the publication of his newspaper and his other abolitionist activities.   Blight thinks that explicitly sexual behavior between them was improbable, but they scandalized those within and without the abolitionist movement.  She became essential to the financial survival of Douglass’s family and paper and to the daily labor of publishing.  As Blight points out, the managing of a newspaper for a cause to which she was devoted was not a position she could have dreamed of having anywhere else.  Douglass would continue to be involved with white women and, after Anna’s death controversially married one.

I fully recommend Blight’s biography to all readers who want to understand a little known but major leader in American history and the stage on which he acted.  It will also be of interest to those interested in the use and value to words and language.  At 400 pages, it is a big book, worth sampling if not reading it all.

Little Gods: A Novel, by Meng Jin.

October 12, 2019

Little Gods
Little Gods: A Novel, by Meng Jin.  HarperCollins, 2019.

FORTHCOMING December 2019.

5 stars

A brilliant novel about a Chinese mother, her daughter, born during the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the book’s characters’ attempts to reject their pasts.

Little information was available about Meng Jin.  She was born in Shanghai and now lives in Brooklyn. She attended Hunter College where she studied writing.  This is her debut novel.  In the only picture of her that I found, she appeared to be of European descent.  Perhaps she has achieved the rejection of her literal past and recreation of a new identity that some of her characters attempt.  Regardless, her book is excellent; indicating perhaps that a person need not be a hereditary member of a group to write about them well.

The central character of Little Gods is a talented woman physicist, whom readers come to know only through the narratives of others, including her husband and daughter, a nurse and a neighbor.  All these relationships are complex and ambiguous and we only learn gradually what has happened between those involved.  Despite the disparate voices and themes, the book is tightly unified, leaving no confusion of the time and place action is occurring.  Perhaps Jin avoids this common problem with the thick interweaving of characters in each other’s stories.  Perhaps she achieves unity with the ways in which she touches repeatedly and lightly on themes of time and rejection of the past.

While the physicist obsesses over the reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, readers need not understand the science she explores. Yet we can recognize how it relates to the human attempts to erase personal pasts and start over that characters exhibit.  The book is less about resolving philosophical questions of time and reality and more about observing others’ attitudes toward them.  For example, when the physicist dies, her daughter is determine to explore her mother’s life and identify her own father.

Little Gods may raise questions for readers about how much our past determines our present and future.  It also explores the ambiguity of rejecting or accepting parental identity.  The book is also full of tension over what we simply don’t know as the book proceeds.  Attention to details of places and people add the book’s strength. The details of China after Tianamen Square are not well known for many readers.  But most of all it is extremely well written and a joy to read.

I enthusiastically recommend it to all readers.

Suffrage, by Ellen du Bois.

October 5, 2019

Suffrage: Women’s Long Struggle for the Vote, by Ellen du Bois.  Simon and Schuster, 2020


5 stars

A comprehensive account of the movement for women’s suffrage from its beginnings in the abolitionist movement, through its post-Civil War divisions to its eventual success, written for a general audience by  the major scholar of the topic.

Ellen du Bois is a retired professor of History and Gender Studies at UCLA.  Since the rise of Women’s History in the 1970s and 1980s, she has focused her research on various elements of the US movement for women’s suffrage.  Her new book summarizes some of that work.  She has also edited collections of documents by women from different eras for students.  Significantly one of the document readers, Unequal Sisters, edited with Vickie Ruiz, features writings by a variety of those whose race and class have interfered with their inclusion into traditional history.   As she states in her introduction, DuBois initially planned Suffrage as part of celebration 100 years of women’s national ability to vote in all elections.  She admits she also expected to celebrate the first female president.  Perhaps her book is even more relevant today as we experience a renewed wave of white supremacy and attacks on women who dare to take their place in politics.

DuBois is an excellent writer.  Without giving up documentation, she writes with energy and grace for non-academic readers of various ages and interests. Du Boris’s new book is encyclopedic; a place to start on any person or event connected to women’s suffrage. The suffrage movement spanned from 1848 to 1920, much of action took place at the state rather than the national level. Women of widely divergent backgrounds, styles, and attitudes contributed.  DuBois is committed to conveying the variety of the movement as well as the contexts which often drove women to act as they did. Numerous women receive brief but informative descriptions that allow them to be seen as individuals.  Despite their divisions, she seeks to present all factions fairly.

The first section of DuBois’s new book retells the hopeful story of Seneca Falls and the first stages of women’s rights movement down to the Civil War.  We learn about the women who became leaders, their abolitionist connections and the overall political context.  After the Civil War, the story becomes less hopeful as former allies got polarized into those who prioritize the vote of the black man and those who sought universal suffrage.  The men leading the Republican Party rejected the fight for “universal suffrage.  Some women suffrage advocates follow their lead. Others make dubious alliances for support of women’s vote.  Deep divisions between the two movements develop that would fester down to the victory of suffrage in 1920.  While some suffragists based their struggle on need for justice to women, others argued that men needed women’s votes to achieve their own goals.

For modern scholars, the racism and nativism of some women suffrage leaders is hard to accept.  DuBois does not excuse or deny such views.  She explains the real frustration some women felt at a government in which “inferior” black and immigrant men participated, but not themselves.  Not shying away from the racism of the white women, DuBois chronicles how black and immigrant women were explicitly excluded from parades and rallies.  On the more positive side, she also gives a full account of African American and working-class women who did contribute important work for suffrage.  As she tells the story, changing definitions of gender were tightly interwoven with attempted changes in how Americans thought about race.

Quite simply, DuBois shows how women never were the unified voting block that they hoped and claimed to be.  Dubois has given us an example of the problems when we refuse to stand together.

This is an important book that needs to be read widely if we are to avoid divisions and mistakes of the past.

Bird Summons , Leila Aboulela.

September 22, 2019

Bird Sumons?Bird Summons , Leila Aboulela.  Grove Press, 2020.


3 stars

A novel about Muslim women from the Middle East living in Scotland and fantasizing about alternative lives.

Leila Aboula is a well-regraded Islamic novelist, raised in Khartoum in the Sudan.  In her twenties she moved to Aberdeen, Scotland.   Her books have focused on Muslim women, living in Europe and on how they manage their commitments to their Islamic values and their European lives.  She has written five novels, gradually experimenting with increased complexity.  I have read and enjoyed all of books and appreciate her detailed writing style and ability to deal with characters’ ambiguity. For me, Aboula’s early novels were significant.  As I began to learn about women and Islam, she showed how and why that faith is important to women as well as men.  I do not find her newest book as good as her earlier ones.

Bird Summons is, in part, a fantasy, set at a magical lake in Scotland where three Scottish Muslim women come together on a “holiday” and a pilgrimage to the grave of a Scottish Lady who had converted to Islam.  The women are different ages and circumstances and from different countries.  In their lakeside cabin, each meets an imaginary creature and is led into dangerous adventures which changes them.  Each comes to see herself and her circumstances in a new light.  Although the women also interact with each other, little unites them.

The premise of the book is interesting, and I tend to like the inclusion of fantasy in novels.  The fluidity of the novel and the shifting time frames, however, weakened any sense of narrative.   Readers are shown the dilemmas of Middle Eastern women in Europe, but Aboula does not display her strengths as a writer as well as in her earlier, simpler books.

I recommend Aboula’s previous books to readers who care about Islam women in Europe.

The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, by James S. Gordon

September 18, 2019

The TransformationThe Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma,  byJames S. Gordon, M.D. HarperCollins, 2019.

Forthcoming: September 10, 2019

4 stars

A world-recognized authority and mind-body medicine pioneer presents his self-and group support program to reverse the psychological and biological damage caused by community trauma.

James Gordon is the Harvard-trained psychiatrist who founded of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, an organization which has a history of working in places which have been torn by trauma.  He and his team have worked with refugees and war-survivors in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel, Gaza and Syria.  In the United States he has assisted with Native Americans, first responders and military families.  He has been a researcher at the National Institute of Health and taught at Georgetown Medical School.  For a time he was chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy.  In addition to appearing widely on television, Gordon has published several books and written for both the academic and popular press.

In his new book, Gordon summarizes his mind-body approach to trauma and how it can be healed.  Unlike those who focus on trauma as an individual, private challenge, Gordon views trauma as something that happens to all of us and something which we all need to learn to handle.  He utilizes mind-body research and practice in growing use in both formal and alternative medicine today.  His methods are not unique or esoteric practices but include practices such as movement therapy, deep breathing and journaling.  Gordon believes self-care is important and possible, where communities come together to share, support and heal.  In regions where trauma is wide-spread, his teams typically train local leaders in his protocols and then have them teach the approach to others.

Transformations is a useful book for both individuals and groups who hope to transform and heal trauma through a variety of practices that empower both minds and bodies.

Mighty Justice:  My Life in Civil Rights, by Dovey Johnson Roundtree.

September 11, 2019

Mighty Justice
Mighty Justice:  My Life in Civil Rights, by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2019.

Forthcoming, 2019

4 stars

An autobiography by a vibrant civil rights activist and lawyer in the 1940s and 1950s.

Dovey Johnson Roundtree (1914-2018) was born and raised in poverty in Charlotte, North Carolina with a strong grandmother.  Somehow she was able to attend Spellman in the 1930s where a white female professor mentored her.  As World War II was beginning, she went to Washington, D.C. where, as a protégée of Mary McCloud Bethune, she was among the first black women in the U.S. Army Officers Corp.  After a brief marriage, she went to Howard Law School where she studied and worked with the critical cluster of black lawyers who were challenging segregation in the courts.  A case of hers relating to interstate travel paralleled Brown vs. Board of Education.  As the Civil Rights struggle moved from the law courts to the streets, she became less involved in the national movement.  She focused instead on the legal cases of individuals caught up in injustice.  In addition, she went to seminary and studied so that she could become a minister when the AME Church allowed women to hold that position.  Roundtree firmly believed in justice and fair play and through her long life fought for those goals for herself and for others.  Her autobiography is full of what she believed and how those beliefs translated into action. She tells a very personal story of what it was like to be in critical situations such as hearing cases before the Supreme Court.   She lauds the individuals who were her mentors.  But her first love was law, not romance, as her book reflects.

Katie McCabe, a white Washington, D.C. journalist, is the co-author of this book. She is a nationally-recognized non-fiction writer, known for writing about little-known individuals, many of them blacks.  She initially contacted Roundtree for an article twelve years before her death at 104.  The two became good friends and worked together to write Mighty Justice.  Their book is not your average as-told-to production.  The two women were able to blend their talents into a meaningful whole.  Roundtree is always front and center with her own particular language and experiences, and McCabe is behind the scenes organizing and making the project into a compelling story.  It first appeared as a memoir entitled Justice Older Than the Law, in 2009. The Association of Black Women Historians has awarded the book its prize for the best book on an African American woman

For a time in the 1940s and 1950s, Roundtree played a key role in the national legal struggle for Civil Rights.  Anyone interested in that struggle will need to read this book.  For the rest of us, Mighty Justice is simply a fascinating account of a black woman whose life made an important difference in our nation’s history and whose life contributes to our understanding of the variety of significant women.  I recommend it strongly.

The Giver of Stars: A Novel, by Jojo Moyes

September 2, 2019

The Giver of StarsThe Giver of Stars: A Novel, by Jojo Moyes.  Penguin, 2019.

FORTHCOMING, October 8, 2019.

4 stars

An enjoyable, fast-paced novel set in the mountains of eastern Kentucky in the 1930s where four women librarians deliver books to isolated mountain families and get caught up in crises and loves.

JoJo Moyers is an English author and journalist, born in 1969. After a variety of jobs, she began writing popular novels, often including romance themes.  This is her twelveth novel.

In The Giver of Stars, Alice, a bored, restricted young English woman, excitedly accompanies her handsome new husband to the Kentucky hills where his father owns a coal mine.  Once she gets there, she is deeply disappointed with him, with his father with whom they live, and with their village.  Then she takes a job delivering library books to the people in the mountains surrounding the town.  Despite opposition from some of the respectable people in the town, she comes to love the mountains, the people, and the job.  She also becomes close friends with the other three “pack horse” librarians as they face floods, angry coal men, and even murder charges.  And in the process, Alice and one of the other women become involved in romances with local men.

The book is based loosely on the actual project in Kentucky in the 1930s where the WPA hired women to deliver library books to mountain families. The  actual traveling librarians were challenging the gender roles proscribed by the ladies of the village, and much of the criticism of them centered around what it was proper for women to do.  In response, the librarians display both their strength and their womanliness.  Racial conservatism was also challenged but less successfully, but less realistically.

One could quibble with whether or not the novel is historically correct or whether its characters’ actions seem believable.  Yet Moyers is an excellent storyteller and such questions hardly seem relevant.  The book is fun to read and sometimes that is enough.

I recommend The Giver of Stars to anyone seeking a pleasant reading experience.