• Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart ** (of 4)

    Sugar-in-the-BloodWhile investigating her genealogy, the author, Andrea Stuart, learns she is the descendent of both a slave owner and a slave.  She gets all the way back to the first British settlers of Barbados in the Sixteenth Century, finding a great, great (probably a dozen greats) grandfather who left Britain in search of bounty and who manages to scratche out just enough to start a lineage of sugar plantation owners.  It’s an interesting idea for a book, because Stuart has enough information to fill in the gaps for a dozen generations.  She covers politics, slavery, agriculture, and adventure.  Unfortunately, it reads like a long Master’s thesis.  A lot of research, but not that much fun to read.

  • The Hot Country by Robert Olen Butler ** (of 4)

    The first in a series about a rough and tumble journalist, Christopher Marlowe Cobb, who in this episode finds himself covering a delicate series of events in the Mexican Revolution.  The Germans have sent a warship to Veracruz with hopes of arming Pancho Villa.  Woodrow Wilson has sent an invasionary force to keep the revolution in check, but captures only Veracruz.  The invading marines clean up trash.  Cobb drinks, womanizes, brandishes a revolver and a typewriter, and a myriad other things you’d expect of a period piece masquerading as an early twentieth century detective story.  The drowsy heat of Mexican towns is realistically captured, but the suspense is equally drowsy.  Butler’s characters vacillate between sympathetic portrayals of real people and stereotypes of old Mexicans in sombreros and ponchos, dirty children with fast hands and wise-crack mouths, and dark-haired beauties in skin-tight leather.  If you do read the book, you’ll have to read about the Mexican Revolution on wikipedia first in order to follow the plot.

  • This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz **** (of 4)

    A series of connected short stories about Yunior, a semi-autobiographical doppleganger for the author, Junot Diaz.  Yunior is a streetwise Dominican immigrant in a poor neighborhood in New Jersey, son of a largely absentee father, an overwrought, overworked mother, and brother to Rafa an unrepentant womanizer dying of cancer.  Yunior himself loves women, but mostly for their sex.  Each one is a mountain to conquer, from whose peak there always seems to appear another on the horizon.  And yet this disrespectful, infidelity prone schmo is not only lovable himself, but pitiful in his cluelessness.  That is the secret of the book.  We are simultaneously repelled by Yunior’s callousness toward women, a trait I have been assured is one hundred percent Dominican, and anxious to see him finally find the love he desperately craves.  Yunior is a contemporary, hip-hop, Espanglish speaking Charlito Brown.

  • Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois ** (of 4)

    This book covers Haiti’s history from the first importation of enslaved Africans to the months immediately following the devastating 2010 earthquake.  It is as thorough as a textbook and just about as readable, which is to say every paragraph carries a topic sentence followed by a dense recounting of data and information.  There is a big reward for bulling through, but honestly, I found myself reading a lot of topic sentences and skipping the meat.  The meat, Dubois points out most emphatically, is quite rancid.  Haiti is the only place in the world to undergo a successful slave revolt (1803).  Ever thereafter Haitian blacks refused to be dominated and the rest of the world did everything in its racist power to penalize, marginalize, and overwhelm Haiti for the better part of two centuries.  France would only recognize Haiti’s independence, for example, in exchange for crushingly large indemnity payments for lost property.  That property, of course, consisted of enslaved human beings.  The debt was so enormous that Haitian governments embarked on a borrowing treadmill it never escaped.  It took any income it made and paid off debt, never having anything left for infrastructure.  Economic and political instability led the United States to support the needs of its large multinational corporations desire for a stable workforce.  The marines invaded and ran the island as a fiefdom for 35 years at the beginning of the twentieth century (around the same time it was invading and running the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Nicaragua). Dubois’ account is unflinchingly pro-Haitian, but leaves the reader wondering why there is the continuous backdrop of political instability inside Haiti.  No blame is ever really placed within the island.  In this account Haitians, from their first days of slavery to the present, have never had agency over their own destinies.

  • The Long Song by Andrea Levy **** (of 4)

    This is the story of Miss July a house slave in Jamaica from her birth in the cane fields to her post-slavery restitution living in the house of her accomplished son, his wife, and according to Miss July, her son’s three excessively pampered daughters.  This memoir of sorts is chirpy and upbeat as seen through the ordinary lives of enslaved Africans.  Yet their lives are so horrible and awful that no amount of rationalizing on my part could let me understand how a slave owner could treat other humans worse than penned chickens.  Masters had to maintain the concurrent belief that slaves were no more capable of higher thoughts than feral goats and simultaneously worry that his slaves were so clever and devious that a deadly revolt or uprising could erupt at any moment.  The voices of both masters and slaves are so real in the hands of Andrea Levy’s skillful pen that they creep inside your head to linger for days.

  • Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman **** (of 4)

    It takes equal parts chutzpah and talent to write a fairy tale for adults, but Gaiman has the skill to have you open the cover and not close it until the last page.  This is a variation on the African myths of Anansi the spider whose cleverness and hijinks make him the subject of countless stories.  In this one, Mr. Nancy (the senior Anansi) dies in a bar while flirting with much younger women to the great embarrassment of his son, Charles “Fat Charly” Nancy.  Fat Charly attends the funeral, learns he has a brother he never knew of, called Spider, finds himself caught up in an uninspiring marriage engagement, a dead-end job, under the nosy influence of four aging (hysterically funny) Caribbean grandmothers, and ultimately a murder mystery.  The protagonists are well-meaning, but trapped by forces, some overwhelmingly real, others phantasmagorical, who do their best to muddle through.  Never really scary, but nearly always quite funny, if you have any chance to listen to the reading narrated by Lenny Henry, by all means do so.  His voice impersonations of the senior Mrs. Callyanne Higler, the cool, hip Spider, and the slimy Grahame Coats will bring life to characters you will recall with a smile for weeks after you are done.

  • Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat *** (of 4)

    Twelve essays by Danticat as she wrestles with the meaning of being an immigrant — neither from here, nor there — and the devastating history of Haiti.  Reminiscent of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust literature,  Danticat uses poetic writing and vivid story telling to recount tales of hopefulness repeatedly squashed by secret police, hurricanes, vicious dictators, earthquakes, back breaking poverty, global indifference, and earthquakes.  Readers will feel the author wrestling with despair and evil, love and family with the tool she knows best: writing.  The book is strongest when she tells us what happened.  It is also the kind of book that places the label “intellectual” on a country’s writer as she also waxes philosophical on the art and meaning of writing and her relationship to global authors (we may or may not have ever read) that have preceded her.

  • Detective Story by Imre Kertesz *** (of 4)

    A novella about the abuse of dictatorial power in an unnamed South American country. Secret police contrive accusations against a Jewish store owner because they are so paranoid that an incident will destabilize their country that nearly any fact can be construed in their minds into a threat. That’s the plot. Imre Kertesz is a Nobel prize winning Hungarian Holocaust survivor so we can surmise that South America is simply a convenient location for horrors Kertesz has witnessed first hand beneath the twisted logic of first the Nazis and then the Communists. I believe if I had not known the book was written by a Nobel prize winning writer I would not have thought the book as strong. The translation by Tim Wilkinson is very clunky so I cannot be sure if the book is much better in the original Hungarian or whether it was just a toss-off exercise by Kertesz. April 2008.

  • The Lost City of Z by David Grann ** (of 4)

    Percy Fawcett, one of the last of the iconic British explorers, ca. 1920, khaki get-up, pith helmet, and scraggly beard spends most of a lifetime searching for a purported grand, abandoned city in the Amazon until he finally gets lost never to be heard from again.  The author searches for Fawcett and all the other explorers who have searched for Fawcett, but never quite builds much in the way of suspense.  Maybe it is because I have spent time in the Amazon, but I was left with an overwhelming sense of despair for the obvious loss of one of the world’s last great ecosystems and the decimation of the natives who live there, a sideline in Grann’s account.

  • 1491 by Charles C. Mann *** (of 4)

    Mann skewers nearly every myth I learned in K- College about Native Americans. They didn’t walk across the Bering Strait to settle the Americas. They’ve been in the hemisphere more than 10,000 years. Their populations were enormous. Their cultures, even in the densest part of the Amazon, which incidentally is about as natural a forest as the one in Central Park, were sophisticated, political, hierarchical, culturally and scientifically more advanced in most cases than Europeans of the same time period. They didn’t invent wheels, because they were useless in the mud and sure-footed llamas were more effective at climbing steep hills than the European’s skittish horses could ever be. And their weapons and armor were in many cases at least as effective as European guns. Mann can write. He’s riveting when he’s telling stories that open chapters. He’s great at translating science into English. The book, especially the middle third, is a tad long. January 2006.