Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Book Reports

Been reading a fair amount since Christmas, mainly a stack of good hardbacks that Santa Claus gifted me with. Here's a progress report:

The Hemingses of Monticello: An America Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed. I'm something of a Thomas Jefferson freak, so this massively researched history of the black slave Elizabeth Hemings and her many children, including most especially Jefferson's famous "concubine" Sally Hemings, was the first big thick book I picked up, and I devoured it like a hungry man eats a cold chicken sandwich. It's dense with historical and genealogical evidence but well worth the effort. I had already thought that Thomas Jefferson could not become more complicated, more compromised, more ... perversely human. But this book proved me wrong. The inter-racial shenanigans of slave-owning white Virginians, Jefferson most certainly included, have rarely been laid so bare for modern eyes. Seems certain that Jefferson did not start his decades-long affair with Sally Hemings until his wife Martha Wayles died. But get this: Martha Wayles' own father had originally owned Sally's slave mother Elizabeth Hemings, on whom he begat Sally. So the slave Sally Hemings and Jefferson's own wife Martha were in reality half-sisters. It gets even creepier than that. A man whose vision of democracy so informed the American Revolution also owned, in the most literal sense imaginable, several of his own children.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, by David Hajdu. With every current Hollywood blockbuster seemingly based on a comic book -- or "graphic novel," as they now prefer to be called -- today's teenager could be forgiven for not knowing that five and six decades ago comic books were a major target for government censorship and public extermination by the conservative forces of that day (which weren't in fact much different from the conservative forces of our day; only the primary targets have changed). Since I lived through my own scary purges, when my mother came up out of the depths of my cluttered closet with a fistful of my own precious comic-book contraband -- Weird Tales and Superman and Amazing Mysteries -- and burned them all before my eyes as the works of Satan, I could relate personally to this book's pop culture history. The lesson: public hysteria in America was (and still is) a powerful force to be reckoned with.

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird, by Bruce Barcott. Great introduction to the Central American nation of Belize, its endangered native species, and the bravery of a handful of conservation activists who are willing to stand up against the awful power of government and mega-corporations. Haven't quite finished this book, but so far it doesn't look promising for the little guys.

No comments: