This page contains Book Reviews of the Past

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Dred, A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

 Mrs. Stowe published Dred in 1856 just four years after Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Dred is the better novel of the two although both are good.  Dred is a novel that shows in a compelling way why slavery must end and that it will require effort from both black and white to get there.  The book puts the reader right in the midst of the issue and excels at giving the characters reality.   I highly recommend it as another perspective on slavery from the time.

It clearly seems that the book was written with the hope of changing the minds of slave owners themselves. Many abolitionists believed that slavery could end at any moment if only the slave owners could see the error in it and Mrs. Stowe made a powerful attempt to reach them with this book.  Unique among novels Dred is in part the author's response to criticism and debate that ensued after Uncle Tom's Cabin was published.  The title character, Dred, is a radical escaped slave and with his story and that of other characters Mrs. Stowe tried to include the perspectives of slaves.  Black people themselves communicated their views directly during the antebellum period and perhaps some will feel there was no need of Mrs. Stowe's effort.  Yet, this author's great ability to weave a story makes Dred worth reading.

note - There is repetitive use of a derogatory word that was used to degrade African Americans in the 1850s and which still remains highly offensive.

 

   

reviewed Dec. 2012

Babbitt   by Sinclair Lewis

George F. Babbitt is the main character in this book.   Babbitt is a man's man, jovial, driven to advance, and happiest in the company of other men.  He is likeable and very American in his outlook and yearnings.  As the tale begins he is in mid life; he is 46, has a wife and three children, and he is an established realtor. Sometimes he cheats and breaks the rules in his real estate business.  Until now Babbitt has been following the lead of his fellow society folks in a small city in the midwest in the 1930s. 

Suddenly Babbitt find himself siding with union organizers in a local dispute. He  notes that the Chamber of Commerce can coerce businesses into joining while denying the laboring class the same right.  In a questioning mood he further doubts his choice of career and the value of his marriage, drifting into an affair.  Babbitt's refusal to join the Good Citizen League (which contains all the right people) is the tipping point for the community.  His realty business begins to suffer immediately after as both clients and employees disappear.

His wife becomes very ill and Babbitt sees his wife in a more pleasing light as he confronts losing her.  Once his wife recovers Babbitt returns to the embrace of society - however he vows to stop cheating in business and loosens up enough to allow his son to pursue a career that doesn't match what society expects.

Based in part on Cincinnati, Babbitt's situation in life feels very authentic. We still have labor/management struggles and people who cheat in small ways they hope will remain unseen.  It doesn't seem as if we have progressed very far since the 1930s after all.  Babbitt finds a happy ending for himself and his family, perhaps giving hope to others that they too may find a just path. 

 

   

Main Street The Story of Carol Kennicott

by Sinclair Lewis

This novel was published in 1920, coincidentally the year in which women achieved the vote in the US.  As the story of a newly married woman in a prairie town it manages to include many of the issues that have an impact on all of us.  Carol is from the city and rebels against many of the existing customs of the small town where she moves upon marriage.  Carol wants to reform the town into something better and thinks that making it more beautiful is what is needed when she is really dissatisfied with social customs.   Carol finds the stringent roles for women's behavior (especially with regard to work and marriage) confining and unfair.  She can't abide the gossiping, the prejudice (against the most recent immigrant Swedes and Norwegians), and the greed of townspeople.

Desperate for a solution to her unhappiness, Carol moves into a separate bedroom and later leaves her husband for Washington D.C.  Carol's husband, an admirable  country doctor, cannot understand her unhappiness because he is accustomed to life in the town and to women being limited as part of society.

In Washington Carol meets a politically active woman who offers that women must find their own solutions and that it is to be done by.... 'keep on looking at one thing after another in your home and church and bank, and ask why it is, and who first laid down the law that it had to be that way.  If enough of us do this impolitely enough,'.......life for women and others will improve. 

It is a surprise that this book is still relevant today as women struggle to define their own life roads.  Sinclair Lewis based much of the book on his home town of Sauk Centre in Minnesota and yet the depiction of life in a small town is universal.  The author reserved his harshest words for the town gossip who pretends to be friendly to Carol and then passes on what Carol says in order to cause trouble - or makes up lies about Carol to inflame the townspeople.  Carol's husband, wise in the ways of the town, states that this gossip is beyond rehabilitation and should just be ignored and bypassed because she is malice.  Seems a very strong judgment from the kindly doctor but no doubt he was reacting to much harm done over the years. 

 

   
Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally

I appreciate being able to read this book even though it is not an easy story.  I haven't seen the movie and the book was plenty real to me.  The book tells the story of the awful things that were done to the Jewish people by Germany under Adolff Hitler during WWII and how one man fought back.  Only a small fraction of the harm is described but it is from eyewitness's reports and very credible.

A striking point of the book is the inability of the Jewish people (and those who opposed the regime) to trust others because of the betrayal both encouraged and forced by the regime. Another point was the lack of shame by the perpetrators of evil deeds who made no attempt to hide what they did and instead treated suffering and murder as routine events.

Under the thumb of their heartless leader most Germans faced the stark choice to become a 'yes man' and join in causing mayhem or to become a dissident and face prison or worse.  Some military men committed suicide when faced with this impossible choice.   Oskar Schlinder was a non-Jew who succeeded in saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish people.  Somehow he found another choice, built on charisma, bribes of food and liquor, and a few assistants within the system that he discerned could be trusted.  His best asset was an unerring ability to judge people correctly and to know how they would behave.  He also was found out by and helped by the Jewish resistance which provided funds from outside.

It gives me hope to read of his efforts and successes.  Oskar was described as an ordinary man both before and after the war, yet he had just the right stuff to achieve an amazing feat during the war itself.  He was not the only one to succeed in fighting back and I am reminded again that people are as likely to contain dazzling goodness as they are to be evil.

 

   
The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn Beer

This is the story of a Jewish woman who survived in Germany during WWII by pretending she was a gentile even to the point of marrying a Nazi officer.  The charade was an act of desperation in a place where "A new religion demanding our 'bloody murder' had been promulgated throughout Europe, with the cooperation of the church".

As she describes how she nearly gave up many times and yet small things kept her going. As she says, "That's all it takes you see, a moment of kindness, someone who is sweet, understanding, who seems to be sent there like an angel on the road to get you through the nightmare".

In addition she had a strong group affiliation to help her with little reminders of this membership. "A Yiddish song on Hanukkah, a British rabbi's prayer on the radio, some kindness on a train or in the street that reminded me, no matter how far I retreated, no matter how deep into self-denial my fear drove me, that the Jews would always be my people and I would always belong to them."

 

   

 

  Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

 

Two stories are interwoven in this book.  One is the tale of the author, a woman trying to escape from an abusive marriage and the other is the difficult lives of the Afghan women the author meets while establishing a school to instruct in the beauty business.  The plucky American woman gets the school going and it greatly helps the local women.  Yet it couldn't have happened without the help of some local Afghan men.  It is a fact of life that men must participate in a country in which women are restricted in a thousand ways simply because of their gender.  The book was an excellent read although it left me wondering if the extreme troubles of Afghanistan might be related to their refusal to value women as full citizens.  What a bleak life to permit interactions between men and women only in the confines of arranged marriage.

   

 

At Home in the Heart of Appalachia
                              
by John O'Brien

This book has been popular at our house, perhaps because our family lived for some 14 years in the region.  The author moves to the Appalachian region without an understanding of the nature of the place with the goal to try and define what Appalachia is.  Part of his motivation was to get a grip on his own past, his father and grandfather in particular.  The search to overcome one's past is universally familiar and Mr. O'Brien writes poignantly about this topic. 

Mr. O'Brien concludes that 'Appalachia is a relationship between power and voiceless people rather than a specific place' and that 'all of the actors - missionaries, coal company representative, local elites, politicians, newspaper editors, and abandoned Appalachians - kept stepping in to act the same point again and again.'

 His conclusions ring true to me.  But why there hasn't been change isn't clear.  Some one to two million people migrated out of Appalachia in the 1950s.  Why so many left is multifaceted  but perhaps some of it was an inability to improve the situation in the region.  In the end Appalachia presents a warning to the rest of the country of what can happen when the powerful are able to get their way unimpeded-and it isn't pretty.

 

 

Every Man Dies Alone

by Hans Fallada 1893-1947

Hans Fallada, real name Rudolf Ditzen, wrote this book in just 24 days after WWII was over in Germany.  The author had been held in a Nazi insane asylum towards the end of the war and a friend gave him a Gestapo file in the hope that it help Fallada escape from drugs and alcoholism.  The file contained the story of a real German couple that did their personal best to fight back against Hitler on their own.   The story is gripping and insightful.  The depiction of how Hitler's regime interacted with ordinary people and any party members that refused to toe the line seems spot on and has the truthful ring of someone who has seen it in person.  One man stands out for a lack of empathy,   "________ was a huntsman-the old detective was a lover of the chase.  It was in his blood.  Others hunted wild boar; he hunted humans.  The fact that the boar or the human had to die at the end of the chase-that didn't move him at all."  Later the same man has regrets and kills himself as he says, "I never cared who manned the tiller, or why this war was being fought, so long as I was able to go about my usual business, the catching of human beings.....I've had it up to here with it; it disgusts me to keep those fellows supplied with fresh prey."  The English translation of this wonderful book has only been available since 2009 so give it a try.

 

   
"I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, error. "  Irene Nemirovsky 1903-1942 Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  Inglourious Bastards
a film by Quentin Tarentino

Like me maybe you wonder how the German people allowed the atrocities of the Nazis to occur. Suite Francaise is the story of the French people and their reaction to the occupation by the Nazis, written while the author lived in occupied France. The book is both frightening and riveting all at once and goes a long way toward showing how people are similar even when they are on different sides in a conflict. She wrote it for the future and when it ends prematurely it is heartbreaking. 'Captivity' and 'Freedom' were never written for the author's captivity led to a rapid death. Born into a Jewish heritage her conversion to Catholicism brought no mercy. Her husband also perished at Auschwitz, yet two daughters survived and one carried the manuscript to safety and it was published in 2004. Please give this book a chance to speak to you and let Irene Nemirovsky live on.

Inglourious Bastards a film by Quentin Tarentino is also set in occupied France during WWII. The movie did an excellent job of showing the depravity that occurred and how there were some Nazis that reveled in the ability to do as they wished to sate their enjoyment of harming others. It also showed a little how the resistance was limited in numbers, resources, and money yet not in drive or skill. Brad Pitt's team of bastards succeeded in hitting back at the Nazis in France with a small force that included a southerner (Pitt), Jewish soldiers, and even a German. The bastards permanently marked the forehead of all Nazis they allowed to escape so that they would be recognized as Nazis even after they removed the uniform. Indeed we can't tell from the outside who among us in the present day is a 'Nazi'.
Note - this is a very violent movie.

 

The German word, schadenfreud, translates as the enjoyment of hurting others or seeing them hurt, especially to suffer while alive - knowing that they are defenseless in the hands of a person with no respect or empathy for fellow humans. The few people that fall into this group are a scourge that is still with us. It's enough to make one wonder whether there are inherited genes for schadenfreud or if it is a learned behavior passed on by each generation. Today, it is easy to see 'schadenfreuders' casting about for a group they can use as a victim with impunity. Yet the first step in perpetrating a realm of horror is to purge all the good people who will oppose it - starting with the most intelligent and articulate. At times it seems as if there is a current campaign to attack the good people amongst us. Hitler did this with smears, lies and persecution and enough smoke and mirrors to convince the German people it was all necessary until any effective opposition was destroyed and none were left to fight back.

Make the same pledge that Irene Nemirovsky made (see at left) and stick to it with all your heart.

 

 

Anger Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh

I have read this book twice and recommend it to anyone who seeks relief from their anger.  The author says that anger is a living thing with much to be gained from efforts to make it into a useful thing.  Everyone knows how anger left unresolved just gets worse - this book offers tools to instead transform our anger.

Thich Hanh shows that punishing and blaming others  in the end does not help us because the root of the anger is undiscovered and remains a problem.  Rather he suggests that people should thoughtfully and calmly search for the source of their anger.  Sometimes there is a misperception which is causing anger and this can be cleared up by discussion once it is seen. 

Primarily he says it is "insight that stops anger".  Here he means that those we direct our anger towards are really part of ourselves; either family, fellow villagers, or countrymen.  Therefore, hurting them causes ourselves to hurt too.  To reduce the hurt and unhappiness we need only seek the correct source of our anger and take steps that effectively  treat the real source.

 

 

 

        1984 by George Orwell

George Orwell's 1984 is strikingly relevant today although it was written in 1949.  Although he was perhaps referring to the fascist regimes of World War II these sorts of government are always lurking and he may also have been predicting its return.  The book describes a state of the future in which the government, called Big Brother, manipulates the brains of the citizens.   The Big Brother government knew that the brain could be confused about the meaning of sensory input and setup their dictatorship relying on it (they called it 'doublethink').  Big Brother controlled its citizens with several tools.  They were the only media and rewrote the past so that what they said was always true in the media whether or not it was actually true.   Big Brother relentlessly spied on its citizens, using hidden microphones and the ever present 'telescreen' that transmitted images and sound in both directions.  Not to miss anything, Big Brother made everyone spies, even children, each trying to be the first to denounce another citizen.  Surrounded with informers within their most trusted family members, neighbors, co-workers, etc., little happened without being reported.   

 Big Brother banned the union of people in love.  With one stroke this destroyed the ability of sex to give comfort and promote bonds between people and freed the thwarted sex drive to be turned into fever pitch hatred and fear.  The agents of the Thoughtpolice could read minds and marked both lovers and nascent opposition leaders for torture that continued until they capitulated to Big Brother.  The final tool Big Brother relied upon to rule the state was continuous war.  War was needed to destroy the products of the industrial machines that if left in plentiful amount would raise the standard of living and abolish class differences.  Otherwise, as the star-crossed protagonist Winston Smith says, 'Where there is equality there can be sanity'.  Furthermore, war served as a safeguard for the ruling class for 'While war could be won or lost, no ruling class could be (deemed) completely irresponsible.'

 Big Brother's duplicity and the zeal of countless informants made it impossible to decide what to believe and whom to trust.  In the land of Big Brother there was even a new language called Newspeak which frequently contained words laden with opposite meaning.  For example,  the 'Ministry of Love' was the home of the Thoughtpolice and the locus of torture.  Although the leaders certainly knew what they were saying in Newspeak the ordinary citizens were confused about what was meant much of the time.  A correct understanding in the presence of lies could only come from comparing multiple sources to find inconsistencies and also from comparing words to actions.  Yet the citizens under Big Brother were deprived of such honest comparisons by the government run media and the constant rewriting of the past.  Poor Winston found a woman to love who loved him back and they desperately schemed to avoid hidden microphones by talking only in the presence of crowds.  In spite of their precautions,  the lovers were caught  because they mistakenly put their trust in two secret agents of the Thoughtpolice that were only too happy to help the lovers meet. 

 Our present world contains enough technology to spy on citizens without their knowledge.  Cell phones and security cameras are ever present and are ultimately under the control of a distant network (as are landline phones).  Our computers can be monitored by others which effectively turns them into 'telescreens'.  More than anything else,  it is very fast computers that have made it possible to spy on individual actions within a flood of information.  Processing huge amounts of data (data mining), computers can pull out crucial tidbits of interest especially with the advent of voice and face recognition computer programs.  We know that the routine surveillance over American communications is a problem but we can't seem to put a stop to it...probably because those feeling the sting cannot make their voices heard.   Perhaps the spying boom leaped over into public life from the business world where corporations use any possible means to stay ahead of the competition.  Or perhaps it is a tool of the political sphere which constantly seeks ways to know everything about their opponents.  Maybe it was both groups acting together that brought us government surveillance on such a scale.  Some groups may be able to handle the spying as an expected part of business but generally individuals cannot withstand such harsh scrutiny.   The surveillance is hurting some Americans and it is a lie that these people are a necessary casualty in some fight or are expendable because they do nothing for the nation.  The opposite is true - these Americans being harmed are the dissenters and the ones willing to say what they think even if it contradicts those in power!


 

 In the world of Big Brother the dictatorship was established simply for the sake of power.  One of the Thoughtpolice tells Winston that, 'Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution, one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.  The object of persecution is persecution.  The object of torture is torture.  The object of power is power.'  The suffering inflicted on the citizens in the fictitious state was both the end and the means of the power held by Big Brother.  On the other hand it is possible to have power which is embodied by helping those in dire straits, unreachable by ordinary means.  When we try to evaluate our leaders we should determine if their actions are an attempt to halt or to produce suffering.   Even if the man made suffering might be accidental we cannot back leaders that do not rectify the situation, for such either are ignorant of the harm or condone it.

 We need so much help to avoid the Big Brother scenario that everyone must lend a hand.  We need fair elections with candidates that are different in outlook and experience.  At least then there is a chance that some of those elected are there to do good.  Big Brother did not permit elections and remained permanently in charge.  In order to be able to evaluate the leaders in office we need an independent media that is not controlled by either the government or by powerful corporations that want to be in charge for selfish reasons.

 We need to let people love who they choose to love and to teach our children that fairness of opportunity and privacy are rights without exception.  We need leaders of the future to rise without an onslaught of mind-numbing persecution and so we must ensure all potential leaders (everyone) receive their full rights to privacy and to think/express their own thoughts.  Let's put technology to work on this and use video, audio, and computers to document abuse of rights.  Lastly, we need to end the continuous war that we are engaged in.  Is our continuous war similar to the war that preserved Big Brother's land of torture?  Big Brother's war lowered the standard of living and chance of advancement for large groups of people by 'shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.'  

Book Review, November 16, 2010

The Assault on Reason by Al Gore

 A vague feeling that something isn't right in our nation is reflected by the title of this book.  The book is a reflection on the state of our democracy by former Vice President Al Gore.  He says that our democracy is not working well because the checks and balances designed to keep it functioning have been disrupted by the recent take over of power by the executive branch by the administration of former President George W. Bush.  This administration made it clear over and over that they were on a mission to enhance the power of the executive branch of government, but they did not consider the impact on our democracy. 

Mr. Gore shows that the root of the problem is the concentration of both wealth and power in the hands of a single citizen (whether the President or even a small group), a situation that has threatened democracy many times before.  In the past,  it has been the people who have provided the voice of common sense (reason) to stand in the way whenever the desires of a few powerful people are clearly harmful to the people en mass.  As long as the citizens have education and accurate information they can be trusted with the power to make good decisions for the betterment of the entire nation, and this is the sturdy basis for a government that has kept democracy alive for 200 years and made our successful nation the inspiration for other nations. 

 

 

 

Yet Mr. Gore finds that the people are not able to do their part of the government well anymore, in large part because they are not discussing and deliberating over issues and elections as they once did.  He faults television and radio for this because these media are mostly good at sending out information and take in little feedback or response.  Furthermore the high cost of television excludes all but the well connected from using it as a way to communicate and it ability to rivet our attention makes it a useful vehicle for propaganda.  When the nation ran it's business and discussion only via print it was easier for citizens to also use print to respond and there was better deliberation by more citizens.  Another problem was that the administration of Geroge W. Bush made it acceptable to ignore scientific and other factual information whenever the facts did not fit with the plan the administration wanted to pursue.  This set a terrible precedent among the many branches of government and even filtered down to small town America.  Decisions made for all of us as a country became less well founded when reason was excluded.  Mr. Gore feels that the internet may be on its way to both a site for two-way communication and democratic access to information.  How can we return to respect for the facts and unbiased scientific approaches to situations?  As people have access to the facts and can publically discuss them, respect and interest in the facts may improve.  Mr. Gore provides insight into the past and suggestions for the future in this book, give it a chance to inspire you.  
Book Review October 24, 2010

 Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

 This is the autobiographical story of an 18 year old Jewish girl from Princeton New Jersey who was 'tricked' into being committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1967.  She wasn't really tricked so much as she could not handle a new doctor's decision made for her.  Living on her own at 18 the doctor thought she was a borderline personality, that is she was depressed, living a chaotic life and spending time in a fantasy world.  Susanna says there are all kinds of parallel worlds and I see her position on this.  Unable to deal with her life at the time she signed herself in to the hospital - later needing a lawyer to retrieve her own medical records.  The book provides some insight on the other girl inmates as well.  These girls were all reacting very strongly to something and suffering.  Yet, most of them recovered and left the hospital as did Susanna. 

 

 

 

 

 

Girls at adolescence are in a tough spot, moving into life in the wider world and even sometimes being oppressed by their own families.  What kind of a shock is it to realize some religions openly discriminate against women (and gay people) here in the USA?  Or that sports are routinely split by gender rather than size, skill, experience, or heart for the game?  Susanna dealt with her culture shock by taking a time out from reality.  To any modern young women who wish their present situation could  be interrupted please keep in mind - things can change with a little time and **it does get better**.

 

 

The Warmth of Other Suns the Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

This book is a treasure and has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for three weeks in a row.  The title is taken from Black Boy by Richard Wright and it seems to perfectly express in just five words how sad yet hopeful the people who migrated out of the south between 1915-1970 must have felt.  The book tells the story of the migration of millions of African Americans from the south to the north through the experiences of three people; George Starling, Ida Mae Gladney and Robert Foster.  The reader begins to feel as if the three are talking directly to them and all three people become very real in this way.  I feel grateful for George's advice to  "Do not spite.  Spite doesn't pay.  It goes around and misses the object that you aim and comes back and zaps you. And you're the one who pays for it."

 In this book the description of the persecution of African Americans in the south in the recent past is hair-raising even without reading between the lines.  Murder, lynching (aka murder), destruction of property, false imprisonment, rape, and mob violence were the main tools.  Those who directed the unflagging persecution of African Americans (and those who were intimidated into helping) have been perverted by this awful task.  They failed to realize that freedom is so powerful of a need that there would be a consequence for taking it away from their neighbors.  Neither did they seem to realize that doing horrible things to other people makes a horrible place to live (seen anything better?). 

 

 

hoped this book would describe how the situation got to the point where masses of people had no choice but to leave their homes and relatives. Sadly I got my insight, but it is a very dark realization that some citizens of this country need evil the way others need sex.  They made up excuses that would allow them to commit their evil openly and took over government so that they would never be punished.  Yet people have free will and make choices about what to do everyday.  There will be consequences to any evil action because some are resistant to becoming evil and can think for themselves.  

 

 

Favorite Reads, September 15, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book is the story of the interaction between the medical establishment and an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks.  It is currently the book chosen for Dayton's community read project.    When Henrietta developed cervical cancer around 1951, a portion of the cancer was taken and turned into a cell line used in research laboratories.  As a former medical researcher, I know firsthand that the descendants of Henrietta's cancer cells are a very common component of research projects.  This is because the cells are human and in addition divide relentlessly in the laboratory, thus producing large quantities of material sometimes needed for study.  Researchers customarily buy small amounts of the cancer cells (called HeLa) from a government organization that has oversight over the cell lines used in research.  Henrietta's cells have been a part of medical progress in recent years and the subject of countless experimental studies. 
     The book makes for good reading because it shows how the taking of the cells brought travail to the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.  She and her family were not treated as they should have been and this has brought them a lifetime of difficulty in living a normal life and in relating normally to other people.  Only recently have some of the people involved apologized and tried to relieve the family's pain.

 

 

Three Cups of tea by Greg Mortenson and David Relin    and      a long way gone Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
When I read these two books I found it hard to imagine the setting and the people even though the stories are about real people and places. The countries of Sierra Leone and Afganistan/Pakistan are far away yet it was the cultural differences that were the most striking. The people in the books are divided into tribal groups and control over the groups is very autocratic with a handful of powerful people and the masses powerless.

Both books are non fiction and describe places where life is difficult. Greg Mortenson found the outlying areas of Pakistan and Afganistan lacked school buildings and teachers for children - girls were most often left out because they are less valued. Infant mortality was high too, due to a lack of medical care, a harsh environment and periods of little food. Fighting is a constant there, especially where the two countries share a border.

Ismael Beah describes his life in Sierre Leone as a place where young boys carry guns and use them to kill other people. He says "Even a twelve year old couldn't be trusted anymore." and that the people lost trust in those they once knew. No doubt the loss of trust came about because of the bad things that were being done by one local person to another. In my dismay I tried to imagine life in these countries and I could not.

 Greg Mortenson describes Afganistan and Pakistan as a place where ignorance, poverty, discrimination, and lack of opportunity make it possible for leaders to stir up violence and distrust. Through amazing persistence 'Dr. Greg' has been able to build many schools in the rural areas of Afganistan and Pakistan. His book describes what it takes to acheive this feat and it is notable that he only succeeds through the contributions of local people. He shows that the locals themselves are capable of doing the work necessary to improve their own lives and only need a little help from outsiders. Yet, the strategy used by "Dr Greg" to improve the lives of people living in Afganistan and Pakistan has not stopped the wars in this region. In the struggle to assist, his adversaries actually want the hard life to continue for some of the local inhabitants.

When facing off against such plain meanness some say that love and kindness can triumph but often in history it is war that precedes any real change. Still I cannot decide what to make of the US forces fighting in Afganistan, we are there supposedly to end the meanness and yet we are also making life harder for many locals. What is our goal and on which side of the balance sheet are our efforts there? We need more information from the region in order to know our own intent but it seems that distance in miles and in cultures/languages is keeping the secrets of what is happening there.

Ishmael Beah says that one can get used to anything when it prevades all daily life. In Sierra Leone he was a child on his own; cruelly treated and made into a heartless soldier doing awful things. After he was "rescued" he slowly regained his humanity through love and kindness given to him by aid workers and later by his uncle's family. I finished this book a while ago but I still am trying to make sense of it. Ishmael Beah points out how young people are vulnerable to exploitation when they are afraid and have no assistance. The child soldiers watched the movie Rambo and were submerged in a culture in which the title character was lauded for his killing of people. Those seeking to exploit or damage young people here must find those children who lack support and then fill them with hate and violence. In America perhaps they find these young people in places where almost every public school student knows one person who has been shot. Yet, exploiters can probably find hurting children anywhere because no place is immune. Most students in America at least have an idea of a good life based on fairness of opportunity and rights for the individual but some lack experience with such a life. If these struggling young people receive just a little assistance from sincerely helpful adults perhaps they can improve their own lives for themselves.  

 

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tomís Cabin is an epic battle between good and evil.  On first reading this book I was so impressed that I recommended it to my daughters.  One daughter read it for a book report when she was 14 but only after we, her parents, signed a paper giving her our permission to read it..  See her thoughts about the book at right.

 Uncle Tomís Cabin was the best fiction success of the 19th century and yet it is hardly known in the present time.  So many overdone dramatizations of the book were performed in the latter part of the 19th century that the bookís reputation was damaged.  Furthermore, there were complaints from both southerners and African-Americans that the book was inaccurate.  All the hullabaloo aside, Uncle Tomís Cabin was out of print for much of the 20th century until the mid 1960's. 

 Although originally from the northeast US, Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Cincinnati for many years in the 1830-1840s.  Ohio never allowed slavery either as a territory or a state, but the river port of Cincinnati had much interaction with states that did.  Thus, Mrs. Stowe had knowledge of slavery and even published a "key" to Uncle Tom's Cabin in which she listed her sources.  This is a unique book with a purpose that was not intended as a historical book and cannot be held to a strictly factual ideal. 

Perhaps the attacks on this book are related to its searing power as a description of both the evilness of people as they scheme and clamor for license to do harm to others and the pure goodness of the victims, so pious that they not only refuse to fight their tormentors but offer to help them instead.  As such the author was showing that evil can only prevail when the innocence of its victims is veiled and the good are excessively kind hearted to the point that they permit evil to be done.  

ďThe characters in Uncle Tomís Cabin help create a very colorful and expressive novel. Uncle Tom, of course, develops as the main character and protagonist in this novel. His personality, being so kind and Christian, makes the horrible things he goes through much worse.  This allows the events to become real to the reader.  If it had just been any old slave being beaten to death by Simon Legree the reader would not have felt that awful churning in the pit of his or her stomach, but when Tom, the character the reader has gotten so attached to because of his compassion for others gets beaten, then they almost cry because they loved him so much.  At one point in the novel, Cassy and Emmeline are hiding from Legree, their master, in his attic and Legree brings Tom in to see if he knows anything about where they have gone. He asks Tom if he knows where they have gone and threatens to beat and kill him, but Tom just replies, ďI know, Masír; but I canít tell anything. I can die. . . Masír if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, Iíd give ye my heartís blood; and if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, Iíd give Ďem freely, as the Lord gave his for meĒ. This demonstrates how Tom stands up for whatever he thinks true and righteous. He is even willing to give the man who suppresses him to no end, his life just to save that manís soul.

The second element that makes this novel great is the theme. At the time when Uncle Tomís Cabin was written, the theme of slavery and freedom for all people was even more important and moving. Many of the main characters achieve their dream of freedom at the end of the book, and those that do not help the reader understand just how bad things get for the slaves and why they should be freed.  An example of this theme in the novel comes about when Master George vows never to have slaves again after he sees what has happened to Tom as a result of slavery.  This demonstrates to the reader how awful slavery has gotten in the south and why all the slaves should have their freedom. Another time in the novel, George expresses just how much freedom prioritizes itself in his life. Even though he and his wife might have had an easier life if they had stayed with their kind masters, there was the chance that their masters could have died and they would have been sold, possibly to a cruel masters. This shows how freedom is so important to the slaves. This demonstrates the importance of freedom that the slaves have inside themselves.

 The setting in the novel makes it very spectacular. It takes place mostly set in the southern states of America, although a section of it takes place in Ohio and Canada.  The time period of Uncle Tomís Cabin begins around 1850, right before the Civil War starts. Also, the dialect of the slaves plays a part in the setting. The reader can tell as they get farther north in the plot that the people, black and white, speak differently up there. All of the different places that the story takes place in get described in great detail. All of these things put together just cause the story to be descriptive and amazing.

 In the novel Uncle Tomís Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe uses characters, language, and the setting to make her book a classic. Everyone in the story ends up relatively happy, but the issue of slavery remains to be solved. Stowe uses this novel as a plea to her people to try and stop this horrible thing.  This turned out as one of the greatest American books ever written. Anyone that calls themselves an American needs to read this book. Any racist person can be converted by reading this novel.Ē                   

 excerpted from Megan Kaplon 's A book report 2005

 

Favorite Read, June 8 2010

A Lawyer's Journey: The Morris Dees Story

When this book arrived at my house free of charge - I could hardly resist reading it.  This book is the first in a series about outstanding American lawyers published by the American Bar Association and it tells a compelling tale.  Morris Dees' youth in Alabama seems to have been an ordinary life and very hardscrabble.  After he graduated from law school he was named the Superintendent of the Sunday school at his longtime family Baptist church.  Upon the horrible death of four young black girls 11-14 years old in the bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Baptist Church in September 1963, Morris Dees stood up in front of the congregation.  He stood up and asked for his church to offer their prayers and support to the members of the sister church that had suffered the tragedy.  Surely this was a brave act by Morris (given the times), and in fact only his wife responded to his request.

 

 

 

 

 

Morris kept doing what he thought was right and along with Joseph J. Levin, Jr. co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.  This organization has helped many people suffering from oppression get their day in court and meanwhile also provides help for teachers and for law enforcement. 

Morris proffered two thoughts in the book that especially give me hope.  He says that "It had taken me a long time to stand up in the community and say segregation was wrong.  It might  have taken __ and some others even longer, but the important thing was that they, too, had eventually done the right thing." 

Morris also says that "Labels don't mean a damn thing" and that he sometimes finds support among those who seem unlikely allies on the surface.  Morris Dees is a salesman extraordinaire and the rest of us can only dream of being able to state our case as well as he does.  Still I treasure these nuggets of insight from him and I will try to remember that the right thing to do has power of its own to influence people and all mortals have to do is turn the light on..

 

 

Favorite Recent Reads:

Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass  An American Slave , written by himself

 Frederick Douglass's autobiography is at turns inspiring and uplifting even though it contains frightful images. He tells us of the character of slaveowners he knew.  One " was a cruel man......He would at times seem to take great pleasure at whipping a slave."  Of another he said, "The leading trait in his character was meaness; and if there were any other element in his nature, it was made subject to this.  He was mean; and like most other mean men, he lacked the ability to conceal his meaness.....He was cruel, but cowardly".  Frederick hoped that his master would be improved by attending a Methodist camp-meeting but  "it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse after his conversion than before....after his conversion he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty." 

Of another man, a slavedriver, he said "....(his) forte consisted in his power to deceive.  His life was devoted to planning and perpetrating the grossest deceptions.....Having no resources within himself, he was compelled to be the copyist of many, and being such he was forever the victim of inconsistency."  He describes gruesome murders of slaves commited by both men and women slaveowners that remained unpunished.

Young Frederick lived for a time with a white family that treated him reasonably well.  From an edict that the mistress must stop teaching him to read,  Frederick discovered some of the slaveowners power was due to their ability to prevent education of the slaves.  He prized this insight and pursued learning with all his being.  He regretted leaving Baltimore for one telling reason; because he had received many good lessons from young white boys and "the thought of leaving them was painful indeed".  

 Frederick lost hope for a brief period when he was broken in spirit by starvation and exhaustion and the relentless evil of the slavedriver at fault caused Frederick to fight back.  The two fought man to man and it was the slavedriver who received the worst of the fight. Frederick himself felt freer, " I now resolved that, however long I remained a slave in form, the day had passed forever in when I could be a slave in fact."  Soon after this, Frederick Douglass escaped and went to New York where he contributed to the movement to end slavery and to support rights for Native Americans and women as well as other groups.

The autobiography ends here but Frederick Douglass can be found in books or on the web.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/frederick_douglass.