Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: “Tacky’s Revolt” by Vincent Brown

Tacky’s Revolt by Vincent Brown

Until this year, I knew very little about the history of Jamaica or the Caribbean in general, so this book was a lot of new material for me.

Tacky’s Revolt was one of a series of slave uprisings in Jamaica (and elsewhere) in the 1700’s.  Jamaica was the most profitable colony in the British sphere, and that profit was produced by slave labor.  Brutal, lethal work, mostly done by captives from Africa.  Surprisingly enough, the enslaved people were not happy with this arrangement, and, from time to time, rose up to take control of their own lives and fortunes.

Brown gives a complicated and nuanced history of these pivotal fights.  He is at pains to portray the multiple simultaneous conflicts in play, imperial transatlantic wars, African imperial wars, and “intimate” master-slave wars.

Within these conflicts, there were many parties on each side with competing interests.  The colonists feared foreign invasion and domestic slave rebellion.  Large planters and absentee owners sought maximum production, smaller businesses and workers needed security, the military forces needed to project power and to see to imperial goals not just commerce.

The slaves were recent captives from different parts of Africa, and different social strata, as well as island born “creoles”.  These people did not necessarily share anything other than the misery of bondage.

There were also “maroons”, descendants of escaped slaves who had achieved a temporary recognition and sovereignty from the colonial government, and worked as war time allies by treaty.

Over this diversity lay the politics and ideology of race, which was conceived to be linked to both ancestry (European versus African) and skin color.  In any case, as always, the concepts were messy, with many people falling into “mixed” categories, and increasing numbers of people born on island no matter what their heritage and skin tone.

The institution of slavery was messy, too.  While whites could employ arbitrary and unlimited violence to keep slaves in line, everyday life was more nuanced.  Slave owners were responsible for keeping their thousands of slaves in order, and this required both force and inducement. Some slaves were relatively privileged, and any who had a semblance of security might resist an uprising that risked what they had.

Relations between creoles and freed men in the cities and the maroons in the hills were complicated regardless of skin colors.

For that matter, the white colonists and government forces were governed by force as well.  The military forces were notoriously brutal, and  in times of uprising. martial law required whites to military service, at the cost of private profit.

If this sounds like hell, Brown will tell us that it was in fact continuous war.  Wars between European powers drove competition for colonies, which needed slave labor to be profitable. Wars in Africa fed the European slave trade, which both needed and sustained the overseas colonies.  Controlling thousands of slaves was essentially a continuous war of the masters against the slaves, one which only intensified over the years.

Phew!

The actual incidents recounted in the book aren’t actually that spectacular.  The slave rebellions were short lived and unsuccessful. The reactions were predictable and brutal. The stories told are predictably twisted and awful.

However, these unsuccessful uprisings were not without wider consequences.  The Jamaican revolt pushed London to reform the government of colonies, taking more control and demanding more revenue.  Applied to North America, this policy led to extreme consequences a few years later in the 1770s.

The uprisings also fed into the development of the ideology of racism, in part to justify slavery and the suppression of slaves.  Brown points out that the events also fed into the beginnings of the anti-slavery movement, demonstrating the costs and moral peril of the slave trade and slavery in general.

Prof. Brown is an academic, and he is pretty careful with  sources which are imperfect and one sided.  We learn quite a bit about how the Africans in Africa and America might have been thinking, though we have little firm evidence about much of this.  Brown interestingly juxtaposes African perspectives with the thinking of the colonists, who were ignorant, misinformed, and often projected their fears onto the unknown masses of slaves and native Africans.

I must say that much of this book is filled with peculiar fussing about geography and conceptual geography that he calls “spatial history“.   A lot of this seems to be over done, dressing up simple history with academic jargon.

Still, it’s an interesting and gripping story, regardless of these academic flourishes.


  1. Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Cambridge, Harvard, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

The Library Book (2018) by Susan Orlean

This book recounts the story of the 1986 Los Angeles public library fire.  The cause of the catastrophe was never proven, though a man was accused but never tried for arson.  The story of the fire and the heroic recovery and rebuild is inspiring to everyone who loves their library—and most people do.

Part of the story is the mystery of what happened, and specifically whether the accused man, Harry Peak, did commit arson.  Peak was a story teller who seemed to tell a different story every time he opened his mouth.  It still is impossible to really know if he was involved, even if he did everything he could to make people think he was.

Orlean portrays the horror of the loss for the librarians and the people of LA.  As often happens, the catastrophe brought out the best in people.  Volunteers rushed to the aid of the library, money was raised, the building fixed and expanded, and books replaced.

Along the way, Orlean tells the history of the LA library.  Public libraries and librarians tend to be quirky, but this is Southern California, so things are really, really quirky!  The founders and leaders of the LA public library have been Californian to the bone, and odd even for LA, so this is a fun read.

This is also a paeon to libraries, librarians, and the LA public library (which is now her own ‘local’).

The LA library is “a model of the modern major general” of a library, growing and thriving far beyond the stacks of books.  In the age of the Internet and homelessness, every public library is innovating, and we love our library even more every day.

Orlean also recalls her childhood experience at the library, as well as similar experience of others. She found abundance, and also of personal agency in her childhood library.   She immediately finds this glorious, glowing feeling in every library she visits.

Me, too.  And lots of other people, too.

There is so much to find in the library, and no one is going to tell you what you can and can’t discover and enjoy (or abhor) there.  We love it, and we find a community of others who love it, too.

As we dig out from the pandemic, we will do everything we can to reopen and reboot our local libraries.  It will be hard, but we will not be denied.

We will have our libraries back!


  1. Susan Orlean, The Library Book, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2018.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Lives of Bees” by Thomas D. Seeley

The Lives of Bees by Thomas D. Seeley

Professor Seeley is a bee guy, a professor of bee-ology, and a bee-o-phile for sure.  This book is a summary of important things he has learned over the past umpty-ump years.

In particular, he has studied how honey bees live in the wild.  Beekeeping is like any other agricultural enterprise, bending a wild species to human needs. But honey bees are only semi-domesticated, and still exhibit many ‘wild’ behaviors.  And, as we learn in the book, there are colonies of wild honey bees all around us.

The bulk of the book is a pretty detailed discussion of the natural history of these wild bees, as well as their semi-domesticated sisters.  Seeley is the real deal, and this material is definitely footnoted.  He knows what he is talking about.  And, when appropriate, he tells us what we don’t know.

These chapters are surprisingly readable, considering the level of scientific detail.

But the true heart of the book, and probably the reason he wrote it, is the last chapter, a mere 10 pages, titled “Darwinian Beekeeping”.  What he means by this is bee-friendly bee keeping, which lets the bees live more closely to how they live when they live on their own.

(I have no idea why this is termed “Darwinian”, since most of it has little to do with any sort of natural selection, per se.)

“Darwinian Beekeeping” comes from the main finding of all the studies of wild bees in the book.  The bottom line is that human bee keepers have imposed extremely different conditions from what bees seem to prefer in the wild.  These conditions stress the bees, and make them much more vulnerable to disease and mischance.  At the same time, Seeley’s research shows how wild colonies thrive, by living the bee way rather than the human dictated way..

Everything from the size and design of bee hives (too big, poorly insulated, smooth walls, too close together) to interventions (artificial insemination, preventing swarming, moving hives long distances, limited diets, and just plain bothering them); humans stress out their little helpers.  It may be good for profits, but it’s bad for the bees.  And, sooner or later, stressed out bees will be less profitable, because they will be dead.

Seeley’s science-based suggestions amount to doing things a lot more like bees do.  So—use smaller hives, spread them out, don’t drag them all over the continent. And so on.

Of course, many of these practices will result in less honey production and less profitable pollination operations for the humans.  And some of them, such as ‘locate near natural areas’ and ‘stay away from pesticides’ are difficult to achieve in heavily farmed areas (such as the corn desert of Illinois where I live).

But clearly, for hobbyists and home operations, these “Darwinian” principles could mean a much friendlier and healthier life for the bees.  I hope and assume that these ideas are stirring bee people to better ways.


  1. Thomas D. Seeley, The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2019.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Afterlife” by Julia Alvarez

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

Getting old inevitably means losses and memories.  I’m pretty sure that there is a considerable amount of autobiographical experience in Alvarez’ story of a newly widowed retired writing teacher.

The title refers to Antonia’s pondering the afterlife of her dead husband.  What afterlife do people have?  She thinks of Sam often, and seems to have conversations of a sort with him (though he seems to get the last word a lot of the time).  Will there be anything more?

“All she has come up with is that the only way not to let the people she loves die forever is to embody what she loved about them.  Otherwise the world is surely depleted.” (p. 115)

Whatever losses may come, the world does not stop, even for retired widows.

Antonia is called upon to deal with the old problems of her sisterhood, her three demonstrative Dominican sisters.  If Antonia is adrift in retirement, her older sister Izzy is careening as wildly as ever, to the distress of the other sisters.  Just how should one care for someone who seems to careless for herself?

At the same time, Antonia faces a new challenge in the form of a young migrant who arrives on her door step, pregnant, abandoned, and young, so very, very young.   Antonia, comfortable and safe, is thrust into the risky role of grandmother and protector of fugitieves.  It is difficult to not intervene and care for this teenage Madonna, but the truth is it isn’t at all clear what the right thing to do.

In the end, Antonia can do no better than what her mother had said in the face of unsolvable troubles:  “We will see what love can do.” (p. 188)

There is not always a happy ending in life or in this story, but we have to try as best we can, and, indeed, see what love can do.


  1. Julia Alvarez, Afterlife, Chapel HIll, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Wake, Siren” by Nina MacLaughlin

Wake, Siren by Nina MacLaughlin

I have never read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and this book surely doesn’t make me want to.   The changes in question are magical and weird, and so distant culturally that they hardly make any sense at all.  M. works hard to give contemporary context and meaning to these tales, with a bit of poetic voice.

“Immortality is the end of beauty. Beauty begins in endings.” (p 131)

Unfortunately, Ovid’s original is full of rape and other atrocities.  Many of the events are quite easy for us to understand if not sympathize with—the crimes of male power against the weak and young and women in general are familiar to us.  But some of the conflict stems from the peculiar psychology of the gods and goddesses, and ancient notions of shame and honor.  These are harder to grok.

In particular, many of the “metamorphoses” are some kind of punishment or rescue, which often seems disproportionate and irrelevant and even wrong to the supposed crime or trouble.  Rape and incest victims are turned into trees or streams or animals.  Why?  What is this supposed to mean?

The original seems pretty bleakly repetitive, many of the tales are so predictably awful.  I mean, Jove was a serial rapist, so there are a lot of victims to hear from.  But their stories are similar to each other, so it just grinds on.

But the book is not unremittingly bleak.  The stories of Baucis (pp. 199-210) and Pamona (pp. 295-303) are touching and wonderful, especially to a old guy like me, fading out.

“Come in, come in, please, come in.” (p. 201)

“What more could there be? What more?  I braid my hair. I kneel in dirt. I take his hand. We leave space for change. We make things grow.” (P. 303)

After all, life is change, metamorphoses happen constantly.

Ovid wrote that all things change but no thing ever dies.  The first part is very true, the last part is not only flat wrong, it is preposterous.

“Time is not a generous host” (p. 336)

Everything dies.  And many of these stories make clear must how horrible it would be if no thing ever died.


  1. Nina MacLaughlin, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “How Much of These Hills is Gold” by C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

Zhang’s story is set in gold rush California, a time when people from all over the world were mad for one kind of gold, and heedless of everything else including family, animals, and the very land itself.  The protagonist sees little metallic gold, but does learn to see the golden grass of the hills, as well as to feel a connection to this, her native land.

The protagonists are some of the “others” called to the gold fields, Chinese and Mexican and Indian and, soon enough, mixes of many origins.  And, of course, Lucy is a girl becoming a woman.

By now everyone knows that most of the gold rushers ended up poor, and lived very hard lives.  Things were worst for “others” who could be victimized at any moment.  And, as Zhang shows, “otherness” was defined by the observer, regardless of reality.

Lucy’s family is Chinese American (though the details are not clear), and they are poor and beset by discrimination.  In this land of opportunity, they are robbed of every little gain, no matter how hard they work and suffer.  How could we not love her, even as we cringe at what life throws at her.

We also see different members of her family have significantly different reactions to these injustices, and approaches to dealing with the power of others over their lives.

The main thrust of the story is the mix of fantasy and reality that plays out in her head as Lucy grows up.  What is real, what is true, what matters?  What is family, what is home?  Much of this is magical thinking, even if harsh reality is never far away.

Overall, this is a rather sad story, hard to read in places. I wouldn’t say that there are any good answers to be found in this story.


  1. C Pam Zhang, How Much of These Hills is Gold, New York, Riverhead Books, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Unworthy Republic” by Claudio Saunt

Unworthy Republic by Claudio Saunt

The history of the United States has many disgraceful incidents and dark periods, replete with racism, greed, and stupidity (usually all three).  But none are more dishonorable and disgusting than the “Indian Removal” of the 1830’s.

Saunt recounts the unseemly and horrible events whereby the sovereign, “civilized” tribes of the Southeast US were brutally robbed of their land and forced to relocate across the Mississippi River, in violation of treaties, legal principles, common sense and basic humanity.  The stolen lands were mostly converted to cotton plantations worked by slaves (“privately run slave labor camps” as Saunt puts it).

The story is ugly, shameful, and hard to read.  Greed and racism coupled with the power of the state were able to push through what today we would call “ethnic cleansing” (or, what today’s white supremacists would call, “replacement”).

Tens of thousands of peaceful Cherokee, Chocktaw, Creek, and Chickasaw were swarmed by invading whites, using every tactic from fraud, to threat, to outright murder;  backed by sherriffs, judges, and militias.

The US states asserted jurisdiction over the treaty defined homelands of these Indians, while also defining the Indian people as non-citizens.  This was essentially the same logic as applied to the enslaved people, and later in Jim Crow laws, and continues in various forms of legalistic disenfranchisement today.

This is twisted, unjust, and wrong; and I’d like to say that this is “Unamerican”, but for most of the history of the US, this has been the way things worked.

In the 1820s, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Federal government was powerless to enforce the treaties it had signed, since it did not have jurisdiction over the actions of the states. That’s right, the US government signed treaties, and then decided that it wouldn’t–couldn’t–actually enforce them. (This peculiar constitutional doctrine was mostly abandoned in the twentieth century, though “conservatives” seek to return to these very bad old days.)

The first tactic was a swap of lands out west for those who voluntarily ceded their land.  This was dressed up as humanitaria, swapping emperiled territory for a utopia out West.  It sounds too good to be true, it was too good to be true.  And not many fell for this nonsense.  Those who did suffered horribly on the trail, and found little but misery and starvation in the new “eden”.  (And things only continued from there.  And continued.)

When “voluntary” expulsion didn’t work, the next step was just plain theft.  Even in that period the gears of capitalism were very efficient at asset stripping, financial engineering, extortion, and fraud.  Vast fortunes were made investing in this stolen land.

Again, I’d like to say this is Unamerican, but, of course, the entire enterprise of the USA is based on taking over other people’s land.  This is as American as it gets, the founding principle of the country.

Even this chaotic land rush did not push out all the inhabitants fast enough.  So expulsion became extermination.  Those who stubbornly tried to stay and become US citizens were routed at bayonet point, herded into camps, and forcibly transported west.

It was brutal, dishonorable, and entirely successful.  Millions of acres were emptied of their Indian owners and replaced by cotton producing slave camps.  It was also a pattern for what was to come later in the century–out in the Western lands the Indians had been relocated to.

This book is somewhat timely because the heart of the story is how a determined US President can run roughshod over law, precedent, and fundamental principle; to the benefit of white supremacists allied to capitalist interests.  President Jackson was determined to evict the Indians he hated and promote slave owning white supremacy, and no amount of political resistance, morality, or even existing laws and treaties could stop him.

Again, I’d like to say this is not only “Unamerican”, but that “It can’t happen here”.  But it has happened again and again, and it is happening now.  So this is very, very American.

This is not a pleasant history.  But it is an American history, perhaps the American history.


  1. Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.

 

Sunday Book Reviews