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The Revolutionary War Lives and Letters of Lucy and Henry Knox, by Phillip Hamilton.

February 11, 2018

The Revolutionary War Lives and Letters of Lucy and Henry Knox

The Revolutionary War Lives and Letters of Lucy and Henry Knox, by Phillip Hamilton.  Johns Hopkins Press, 2017.

4 stars

A collection of letters exchanged between husband and wife dating from before the American Revolution until its close, with helpful notes about their historical context.

All too often what we know about the revolution that began this country is iconic rhetoric or portrayals of political or military leadership.  In this book, Phillip Hamilton provides a different outlook.  He has found and shared the correspondence of a married couple that spans the war years, allowing us to view the war from their perspective and to appreciate how it shaped their relationship.

When they married in 1774, Henry was a bookseller in Boston and Lucy was the daughter of a prominent Loyalist family.  Quickly, however, Henry became part of the Revolutionary Army and Lucy’s family retreated to England.  Although often separated by the war, the couple began to raise their children.  They struggled to stay safe and to protect their property.  Gradually they worked out their own gender roles and the allocation of power and responsibility between them. By the end of the war Henry had become Washington’s Commander of the Artillery, and Lucy had organized the women she knew into one of the first women’s organizations in the country to provide the freezing soldiers at Valley Forge with adequate clothing.

Phillip Hamilton is a professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Hampton Roads, Virginia.  He has published several other books on the American Revolution.  In his collection of the Knox letters, he provides excellent background on the Knox’s themselves and the course of the war.

I am glad to recommend this book.  I am sure it will prove valuable for others who study the American Revolution and a pleasurable read for all who like firsthand accounts of those who have lived in the past.

Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, by Karen Auvinen.

February 8, 2018

Essential Native Trees and Shrubs for the Eastern United States

Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, by Karen Auvinen.  Scribners, 2018.


4 stars

A memoir by a woman who lived for 10 years in a tiny cabin in the Rocky Mountains, where she encountered beautiful, terrible spaces of nature and, eventually the possibility of community.

Karen Auvinen defines herself as “a poet, mountain woman, lifelong westerner, [and] writer.”  She also has earned a MA in poetry from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. in fiction from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and presently teaches film and media studies to freshman at the University of Colorado – Boulder. Her writings have been published in major magazines and she has won awards for her poetry.

In writing her memoir, Auvinen briefly describes her place in the dysfunctional family of her childhood, a family dominated by a demanding, abusive father.  Skimming even more briefly over her college and grad school years, she begins her book with the fire that destroyed her cabin and all her possessions when she had come to Colorado to write her dissertation.  Auvenin was devastated, but came to view her losses as a break from her past and a chance to start over.  She finds another isolated cabin where she retreats by living close to nature.  Alone with her beloved dog, she is able to distance herself from the emotional toxicity that has surrounded her and begin to sort herself out.  Gradually, she opens herself to the tiny mountain community nearby, where she comes to care for and be cared for by others who, like herself, need more space than society typically grants to survive and thrive.

I deeply understood Auvenin’s need to be alone in nature, living there and experiencing its daily, ever-changing power.  I admire her for her courage to choose this life and to stay there for years. The community in which Auvenin becomes involved also rang true for me.  It reminded me of the community of individuals I knew slightly who lived in the desert mountains just outside Big Bend National Park. I crave that kind of life, but never dared make the sacrifices to actually live it.

Auvinen writes well especially when writing about solitude in nature.  She deliberately places herself in the tradition of Annie Dillard and Gretel Ehrlich. Her book is full of the details around her.  I simply enjoyed it.  But I was also put off by the way she seemed to jump over some important aspects of her story.  I began to feel as I did when I learned that Thoreau was taking his dirty laundry back to Concord for his mother to wash when he was living at Walden.

Anyone who writes a memoir makes choices about what to leave out, and those choices are telling.  Auvinen seems to write primarily about solitude and nature, and yet as the book progresses she hints that her life was much less solitary than it appears.  She is honest about her enjoyment of her community and a man who loves her, but leaves other questions unanswered.  She also writes of her love of expensive foods and her trips to Florida and Italy.  She mentions now and then that she is teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder, fifty miles away.  I understood her love for the shabby cabin in which she chose to live, but how did she afford the luxuries in which she indulged?  How did she write a dissertation and teach at UC at the same time she claimed that she was living “on the edge”? A secure place in a university like UC is not like being a rural mail carrier on the side.  It demands evidence of a commitment that would make an isolated mountain life difficult.  For some of us,  it is economic demands that stop us from following her example.  Perhaps her life was simply more balanced then the life she claims in the book.  That would be excellent, but I wished she had dealt with the questions of how she balanced the tensions involved.  It seemed slightly dishonest to assume that having a secure, if paltry income did not distract from solitude. Yet I came to like Auvinen, and I would like to believe she had achieved a livable balance.,

Rough Beauty is an enjoyable book, one I recommend to readers who long for mountain, or desert, and for more solitude in their own lives.

Redefining Aging, by Ann Kaiser Stearns.

February 4, 2018

Redefining Aging

Redefining Aging: A Caregiver’s Guide to Living Your Best Life, by Ann Kaiser Stearns.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

5 stars


Ann Kaiser Stearns (1942-   ) has a Ph.D. in Psychology, teaches at the Community College of Baltimore County, and has devoted her life to research and teaching about how people can cope with difficulties.  Her best known book is Living Through Personal Crisis. She is well known from her speaking and TV presentations. For her new book on aging, she has conducted numerous interviews with caregivers as well as surveying the latest research on how people age and cope.  Most of all, she is able to combine diverse ways of care giving with medical knowledge and comforting psychological guidance. She never downplays the exhaustion and stress of care giving, but neither does she lose hope of it being meaningful work.

Redefining Aging could have been titled Redefining Care giving.  In it, Stearns builds on her own earlier work on how people deal with crises.  She focuses primarily on those who are caregivers to elderly parents or spouses, especially those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.  Her words can also be useful for  a variety of situations. She explicitly suggests that we think about our own future needs and make arrangements so that those future needs are more likely to be met when we become the ones receiving care.

In her effort to lessen caregivers’ guilt, Stearns also points out particular patterns that caregivers need to understand to avoid taking them personally. Caregivers need to keep in perspective that individuals in such situations are dealing with grief and anger over their losses.  Just because a person losses the good humor they have shown in earlier life does not mean they should be treated with disrespect.

Some basic concepts which Stearns stresses are old and others new, at least for me. We all know the importance of caretakers taking care of themselves and getting enough exercise.  Less familiar concepts included the realization that despite its difficulties, caregiving can be very meaningful, a time we can expand and grow. Our society and the ones for whom we care often do not recognize or reward us for our acts of care.  And yet, whether or not you are comfortable with religious language, caregiving is an act of love.  While anger and stress are common and inevitable, we must hold on to the value of our acts.

In addition to Stearns’ text, she has included long stories about people she has known who are involved in care giving. She has chosen a wide variety of the couples and the adult children caring for parents, including a gay couple involved in caregiving. In addition, she makes clear that there is no one perfect way to give care.  Instead, she simply shows how different situations play out differently, and leaves readers with a sense that we are all on the same journey but taking different paths.  Alongside the stories is her encouragement to problem solve and adapt.

Stearns gives attention to detail, especially in acquiring resources and help.  She acknowledges that caring for a family member quickly gets harder if you do not have the money to spend on expensive medical and nursing assistance.  Although she writes primarily for those caring for loved ones at home, she is supportive of those seeking assisted living and long-term care.  In fact, she recognizes that such institutions vary widely, being very good or very bad.  She offers suggestions for insuring that your family member receives the best care possible from them.

I found Redefining Aging to be an important book, especially for all of us seeing ourselves needing care or needing to be caregivers on our horizons. I found it useful in thinking about what I may need ahead.  Although I was sent an ebook review copy of this book, I have already ordered two hard copies of it; one for myself and one to share with friends my age.  I strongly recommend it to others.

How We Get Free, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

January 29, 2018

Visions of Mary

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017.  Includes interviews with Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Alicia Garza, and Barbara Ransby.

5 stars

Republication of a key document for defining the intersection of race and gender in the lives of black women, accompanied by interviews of black feminists including those who first authored the document.

In 1977, a small group of black women active in the protest movements of the time realized that none of the existing organizations recognized and fought for the issues that women like theemselves needed. They organized, named, themselves The Combahee River Collective, after a major Civil War victory by Harriet Tubman and the blacks she organized.  In addition they issued a statement defining the relationship of gender and race in ways that are still used today.  Instead of arguing about whether black women identified by race or by gender, they explained that in the lives of black women race and gender intersected, intensifying the oppression. In organizing and stating their own position they hoped to make clear that they were not trying to get everything exclusively for themselves as their critics continue to claim.  They were naming their identity and their needs in order to form workable coalitions with groups with other primary goals.    As participants describe, they also formed a support network for black women moving into academia and caring professions.  The Kitchen Table Press, which published works by women of color, grew out of the group’s support.

How We Get Free was edited by author and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She also did the interviews of the five black feminists included in the book. I found the interview with Barbara Smith particularly informative and moving. As a key author of the Combahee River Collective statement, her reflections amplify both the document and the group’s early activity.  She makes clear that she and the others involved came to their task only after extensive involvement with a variety of movement organizations and with the debates in which other activists were engaged. After the statement was issued, she went on to become one of the leaders in the emergence of Black Women Studies. Interviews with her sister, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier also contributed memories of the early group.  Alicia Garza, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, discussed the relevance of the statement in the work she is doing. A speech on black feminism by scholar, activist Barbara Ransby addresses the issues raised by the document.

As I reread the Combahee River Collective, I became newly aware of how it exemplified concepts and actions that we are just now discovering as we do the hard work of figuring out how to build alliances that deal with diversity.  Their explanation of dual, or triple oppression, is still vital and widely used as scholars try to understand what it means that we all have multiple identities.  They realized that they would never be a priority in predominately white women’s groups or predominately black men’s group.  Their statement of identity is their way of stating where they are grounded and what they needed as they work for a “seat at the table.”

Everyone who cares about diversity should read or reread the Combahee River Collective statement and the words of those that composed and used it.  All of us who seek to work in coalitions today need to think through our own identity and needs as the women of the Combahee River Collective did.

Happiness, Aminatta Forna.

January 23, 2018

Aminatta Forna.  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018.  FORTHCOMING

5 stars FAVORITE

A brilliant novel by a favorite African author of mine, set in London’s immigrant community and probing questions we all deal with: trauma, change, and adaptation.

Aminatta Forna grew up in Sierra Leone, the home of her father who had married a Scottish woman he meet and marred while in medical school there.  When the family returned to Sierra Leone, he became deeply engaged political activism. Sensing the danger of this work, Forna’s parents divorced.  For the next few years, Aminatta and her two siblings were shifted from one relative or school to another.  She was ten when she had returned to Sierra Leone and wittennessed her father being taken, and later executed for his political stance.  Forna’s first book, The Devil on the Wate??r was a memoir about her own journey to learn about what happened to her father.   She also has written several other prize-winning books, including.  She now lives in London and maintains strong ties to her home country.

Happiness is set in London, but its characters have come to the city from various parts of the globe and created their own largely invisible networks.  The major figure is a man from Ghana who is a world expert on trauma, a man who has traveled widely helping to alleviate suffering in others.  Another character is an American woman who is researching the urban foxes who have adapted to life in the city.  In addition, a lost boy and a woman with dementia have important roles in the book.

In this book, as in her others, Forna is concerned with the meaning of trauma in peoples’ lives and how people—and foxes—are able to adapt to the extreme situations in which they find themselves.  She is a master of portraying the complexities of her varied characters as well as their abilities to make significant choices about living the lives they are given.  While understanding the reality of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she also explores how some individual humans, and animals, are able to adapt to newly threatening conditions.  She deliberately writes in what she calls the “reversed gaze,” showing what events look different when told from the perspective of non-western characters. Her writing style moves easily back and forth across plot lines, but remains a pleasure to read. Her sentences are often gems, asking us to think and hold on to them.

This is an important book both for the details and connections we seldom acknowledge and for the larger questions it confronts.  I wish everyone would read and think about it.


An insightful interview with Forna about her writing.


Here are the links to other books by Forna which I have read, loved, and reviewed.

Memory of Love,

Ancestor Stones,

History Teaches Us to Resist, by Mary Francis Berry.

January 21, 2018

Visions of Mary
History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have succeeded in Challenging Times. By Mary Francis Berry.  Boston: Beacon Books, 2018.

4 stars

Analysis of progressive movements since the mid-twentieth century by a black woman who lead many of them.

Mary Francis Berry (1938- ) has been an African American leader in academia and in various national movements for social justice.  Born in poverty in Nashville, she attended Fisk and Howard University and earned her Ph.D. in History and her law degree from the University of Michigan.  She worked to establish the African American Studies Program at the University of Maryland and was Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.  In addition, she has held significant positions in the national government becoming a controversial figure as the Chair of the Civil Rights Commission. She was originally placed in that position by Carter and then fired by Reagan. After suing the Reagan administration, she was rehired.  She later resigned to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. Clinton reappointed her to head the Commission, and she was again fired by George H. Bush.  She continues as a chaired professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

In History Teaches Us to Resist, Berry summarizes the national movements for social justice which she led and which swirled around her. Her focus is on what was happening at the national level in Washington where Berry herself was active. In a more or less chronological fashion she deals with particular movements like the first march on Washington led by Phillip A Randolph and the movement to Free South Africa as well as the political struggles of particularly conservative presidents. In addition to recounting events and tactics, she wants to provide future activists with evidence of what has worked for their predecessors and what has not.  For example, she stresses that social media has not eliminated the need for careful face-to-face discussions and confrontations. Also she maintains that even if a movement does not achieve its immediate goals, it can educate both politicians and the public about needed change.

Given the scope of Berry’s work it is not surprising that the organization of the book is weak. Her own account of her involvement in movements appears buried in the chapter on the fight to end apartheid. For me, some of the best part of the book dealt with events in which she had taken a part.  At times I wished she had written a memoir rather than a history, but that would have been difficult to organize also.

I strongly recommend History Teaches Us to Resist, especially for those of us who are wondering how we could have achieved anything at the national level.

Beacon Press merits congratulations for publishing three excellent books of African American history this spring that will be welcome by teachers, scholars, and the general public.  All three can help us regain a more accurate vision of the actual character of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when that vision is being sentimentalized and “white washed.”  I will be reviewing all three this week so you can check out the others.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Oritz.

History Teaches Us to Resist, by Mary Francis Berry.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Oritz.

January 16, 2018

An African American and Latinx History of the United States,
by Paul Oritz.  Beacon Press, January 2018.

4 stars

An exemplary history of the little known thread of internationalism informing the activism of people of color in the United States since the revolutions here and in Haiti in the 1700s.

Paul Oritz teaches in the history department of the University of Florida where he specializes in African American and Latinx history and the history of social movements.  His Ph.D. is from Duke, where he edited and collected oral histories for the award-winning, Remembering Jim Crow.  He also served in the U.S. military in Central America where he became disillusioned by our nation’s policies.

In his biographical note at the University of Florida, Oritz refers to this book as titled ‘Our Separate Struggles Are Really One.’  Certainly that title aptly captures its main thesis.  Hidden away in newspapers and convention speeches is an ongoing message that oppressed people need to unite and fight for each other if they hope to be free.  By researching seldom read sources, Oritz has added a new perspective on American history, one that few of us in the history profession knew about.  His findings will probably be attacked by those who continue to want to whitewash our history, but he is simply adding another thread to our story, one that helped me, for one, better understand some the quirks of our foreign policy.

Oritz’s new book is part of an ongoing series being published by Beacon Press entitled “ReVisioning  American History.”  The series is committed to broadening our understanding of who we are by exploring little known parts of our past.  Other books in the series include volumes on indigenous and disability history and the history of queers.  I applaud Beacon and historians like Oritz for these contributions to an expanded version of who we are as citizens of the United States, even when they reveal that our nation has exhibited less than perfect behavior in the past.

I strongly recommend this book for the classroom and for others interested in an expanded version of American history.

Beacon Press merits congratulations for publishing three excellent books of African American history this spring that will be welcome by teachers, scholars, and the general public.  All three can help us regain a more accurate vision of the actual character of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when that vision is being sentimentalized and “white washed.”  I will be reviewing all three this week so you can check out the others.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Oritz.

History Teaches Us to Resist, by Mary Francis Berry.