Review: By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan

In By Fire, By Water, author Mitchell James Kaplan invites the reader to stand with Luis de Santàngel (Finance Minister to King Ferdinand) at perhaps the most pivotal moment in Spanish history.

Here, four events come together around Santàngel, illustrating him as a centrifugal force – seemingly at once controlling and controlled by the historical timeline. The events involved are the Spanish Inquisition, Ferdinand and Isabella (Ysabel)’s campaign against (and subsequent hegemony of) Granada, the exile of Jews from Spain, and Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New World.” Historically, these events did occur near-simultaneously, but in narrative that can become tricky, especially when the main character is involved in all of them.

Perhaps for this reason, Kaplan employs a somewhat indefinite timeline. The story seems to float in space, using ambiguous time markers, “some time later,” etc. While this ambiguity is useful, it has its casualties. Many of the supporting characters (male more than female – the female characters in the book are surprisingly strong and make for interesting, complicated studies) get lost in weak side plotlines (Serero, for example, seems to vanish into thin air).

Whereas there’s a lack of specificity in terms of time, there is sometimes over-specificity when it comes to historical detail. I speak here specifically, not of Kaplan’s grasp on visceral descriptions such as he uses for Estefan’s wounds or in the novel’s few depictions of murder but, of passages where Kaplan seeks factual accuracy as illustrated in his description of torture devices. Instead of using narrative foreboding, he lapses into stagnant dialogue, forcing the describing character to sound like an encyclopedia.

But aside from the minor stylistic deficiencies, this story is rich and, despite my lack of knowledge of this period, it kept me interested. The fictional characters (such as Judith Migdal) are woven together perfectly with those who have real history (such as Judith’s “nephew” Levi, who did in fact exist, by the name of Luis de Torres). My one issue on that point (and the only moment that seemed truly awkward within the narrative) was Torquemada’s vision. It’s the one really supernatural (divine?) moment (unless you count the promising appearance of the vivid rainbow in the sky later on), and it just feels out of place…a stitch or two off, you might say.

With the question of religion and the superiority of belief as the debate on the table, it seems curious that the author would include the veritable villain’s vision. But while there is much in the account to weigh on the soul, there is brightness in the message of freedom coupled with hope. It's a really excellent read (I might even call it essential) if you're into Spanish or Jewish history.

This period is so often glossed over as "and then Christopher Columbus got permission from Ferdinand and Isabel to go sailing and find a new Westerly route to India, but instead he found the Bahamas," and there's just so much more to it than that. And considering my information on the subject was limited to that, and "The Inquisition" song from Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I," I feel much more informed now.

This was my first historical fiction book of 2011. As I said before, I've committed to reading 20 HF books this year. One down, 19 to go!


Review: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop

I never took a course in political science. In high school, we were required to take a semester of American Government, and a year of American History. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before (in a previous review or two) classes have their limits. Even in college, there's only so much history you can study and actually learn in the course of a semester.

Having lived through the past few (increasingly controversial) elections, however, has definitely given me a decent amount of schooling in voter demographics and in the growing rift between the Republican and Democratic parties.

This rift is brilliantly illustrated by Bill Bishop in his book, The Big Sort which details the way in which both parties have reinforced themselves over the last few years, creating two extremes, with little to no middle ground. Most of us are partisan these days, living in shrinking communities with specific homogeneous interests, driving ourselves away from those whose opinions differ even in the slightest, nurturing our political and moral certainties and severing us from the coinciding concepts of tolerance and compromise. While Bishop's personal feelings are obviously skewed towards the liberal end of things, the book saves neither party from its due censure. And he does it without relying too heavily on numbers and statistics which will be forgotten at the turn of a page.

The facts are clear: neither party is willing to budge. And with the introduction of ultra-extreme party offshoots like The Tea Party, there seems little hope for mending the gap of beliefs in America. The ultra-conservative only drink tea with other ultra-conservatives, engendering a whirlpool of hate and ill-feeling toward anyone with a liberal bone in their body. And the ultra-liberal only interact with other ultra-liberals, creating an equally frightening force of hate and fear from conservatives. We all think we're right with pretty much no room for debate. In a world like this, where anyone who is an "other" is a fool or a sham, how is bipartisanship ever to be regained?

America seems to be on a path towards destruction. We can't see the light at the end of the tunnel because there is no light there, the only light seems to be at the center, in moderation. I will never agree with a lot of what the Republican party believes. But I do believe in compromise. I also believe that Glenn Beck is a fool, and I believe that he is one of the tools the conservatives are using to drive a deeper wedge between the parties. But if we want tolerance, if we want compassion and solidity as a nation, and if we want an end to this rift we all need to move towards the middle, even if it means compromising with those whom we consider "rubes, fools and hate-mongers." To get tolerance, you need to give it.

Bishop has a great quote at the end of his afterword to the 2009 edition of the book: "The message people living in a democracy must understand, more than any other message, is that there are Americans who aren't just like you. They don't live like you, they don't have families like yours, and they don't think like you. They may not live in your neighborhood, but this is their country, too." What this book has done, for me at least, is not convert me to a conservative or even reinforced my liberal standing: it has made me willing to listen. I may not side with conservatives and I may disagree with 90% of their rationale, but I think it's important that we all hear each other out and understand where the differences are, and how to bridge the gaps that currently separate us.


Review: What I Learned Under The Sun: My Unbelievable True Life, by Kyle L. Coon

I almost don't know where to begin. This was a tough read for me. Usually when I get an advance reader copy, the book has at least been edited to the point that the plot makes sense, the grammar makes sense, and there are maybe one or two spelling errors. But this was something else. This book (already published, by the way, not a regular unproofed copy) doesn't look like an editor has even glanced at it and, if they have, they should be fired from whatever position they hold.

I don't want to come across as a snob - it's obvious (from Mr. Coon's retaliatory comments towards his wife about his being able to "spel") that the author's priority is not the spelling or the grammar, or even the preservation of tense from clause to clause. His goal in writing this was not to put out a superb piece of literature, but to share his story in the best way he knew how, with as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

But when you remove the constructs that support language, you also remove support for the story - just like when I've looked for an apartment in the past - I only responded to ads and emails where they bothered to put some grammatical effort in - these things lend credit to the writer. Sentences like "One VP they had, I was forced to take to a meeting with me because she had a title of VP and smarter than me!" (pg 104) do not lend credit. And so I am of the opinion that Mr. Coon's work could greatly benefit from an editor who would not only take grammar and the tense in-hand, but who would also make note of extraneous commentary (probably half of the book could have been glossed over in a page or two, and would have made the rest of the book worthwhile rather than monotonous), inconsistencies (i.e. on page 33 he says he and his wife got married on September 5, 1993 but at the end he makes this big deal about numbers as signs and says that they were married on September 9, 1993) and repetition (i.e. pages 84 and 91 have 2 paragraphs on each page that are essentially the same exact information).

The other thing that made this a difficult read was that the author doesn't really make room for alternate viewpoints - in fiction we would call him an unreliable narrator, but since it is his book and he is claiming it to be a true account of his life story, I don't necessarily see him so much as unreliable as passionate. A lot of the accounts read like diary entries - flipping back and forth in time, going off on tangents that aren't always related to the subject at hand, and very very emotional. But in that emotion, he blinds the reader to any other perspective but his own, and I have to wonder if, in his emotive passion, he has blinded himself as well.

Mr. Coon is very enamored of his Bible, and he staunchly believes himself to be "of the light," you might say, and those who turn against him are sinners - guilty of lust, pride, bribery, greed and malice. Towards the end of the book he says that you are either one or the other - of the light, or of the dark. Perhaps in that strict dichotomy he has erased the middle ground where the changes of heart (in his bosses, in his wife, etc.) occurred.

The book is not without its moving moments: when, for example, he describes his children visiting at Christmas, I even teared up a little. But without the necessary viewpoints of the people around him, it makes his arguments feel cheap. If the events contained in this story are all true, then I feel truly bad for him and I wish him the best of luck - but it's important to note that there is always more than one side to every story, and Coon's lack of consistency as well as his insistence that those who oppose him are, necessarily, sinners...that makes me want to hear the other side as well.


Censorship for the Sake of Education? NewSouth Books' New (Censored) Edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Link: Publisher Tinkers with Twain by Julie Bosman, for the New York Times

This is the kind of thing that really just upsets me as both an educated reader, and a consumer.

I am offended that Alabama publisher NewSouth Books and, according to the article, some educators feel that this condescension is necessary. This is obviously not an abridged or "children's" edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the jacket would be more appealing. This is an edition that is meant to be taken seriously by readers and by educators alike. So why the censorship? This isn't 1884 - these aren't the original publishers turning to Samuel Clemens and saying "listen...uh...remember when we printed Tom Sawyer in '76 and we let you sneak in the words 'nigger' (5 times) and 'injun' (part of a character name, Injun Joe, used 42 times)....well...this time you only used 'injun' 7 times...but you used 'nigger' 219 times and uh...that's...well, that's a lot and um...well...we just can't print those words."

This is 2011! What do these publishers not understand about cultural relativism?! And why are educators like introduction-writer Alan Gribben avoiding the contextualization of that cultural relativism? The students that will read this edition are not immune to the world. For one thing, there's the internet. And for another thing, they have one another. And the words spewing from kids' mouths these days are ten times worse than anything that Sam Clemens could have thought up.

But the point I'm trying to make is that he wasn't trying to be offensive and he wasn't using these words for shock value, and he wasn't using them as motifs signifying the language of a culture of sexual objectification (like I've seen in some poorly written urban fiction, à la Danette Majette). These words in this context all make perfect sense, except to those who seem to fear language. And a fear of language is an insecurity that I don't think I will ever understand.

One final thing that I'd like to say, and then I'll go on fuming elsewhere: the publishers' replacement of the word 'nigger' with the word 'slave' is insufficient. If you're going to censor a book's content (and there should be a special circle of hell for those who do) then at least do your damn research. Mark Twain himself used the word "negro" but he was writing characters more base than himself, so "nigger" is straight from the vernacular and didn't mean "slave" but "black-skinned." Also, the novel takes place in the Antebellum Era (pre-Civil War), at a time when blacks (slave, free, didn't matter) used the word "nigger" as artificial self-deprecation. It was a way of allowing white supremacists to think that these people were submitting to their superiority, and it threw suspicion off of themselves - that word had a very important use to them. So replacing it with "slave" is not only insufficient, but (yeah, I'll say it) disrespectful.

These are facts that should not be denied to students by educators. What better way to illustrate history (because we know those 20-year-old history books do such a great job with their "and then Lincoln ended slavery" mantra) than this - what better way to desensitize a taboo, than with the truth?

Review: The Sweet Relief of Missing Children, by Sarah Braunstein

The Sweet Relief of Missing Children
By Sarah Braunstein
352 Pages
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
(February 28, 2011)

Some might call Braunstein voyeuristic in her treatment of this, her first novel, due out in February. As the title suggests, the focus is on missing children, but not solely in the Amber-alert sense of the word. Braunstein expands on the psychological concept of being missing or going missed and introduces the reader to a plethora of characters (a group so large it can sometimes be hard to keep track of, especially once some of them change their names), some of whom have gone missing in the literal sense (abducted, miscarried, run-away, or killed), and some of whom have simply (or not so simply) grown up too soon. 

The novel shifts back and forth between three approximate generations, across several different families, but the stories fit together like a jigsaw puzzle of the Scottish Highlands: individual pieces, belonging in separate quadrants, but with green colors and textures so similar that they seem interchangeable, echoes of one another.

The author's compassion for these characters, many of whom are not very likable, is unfailing - she refuses to condemn any one of them for their errors, for their abuses, for their fears or for their misjudgments. As one character claims, "people do the sickest, weirdest things. Anything to lay claim to whatever feeling you fear the most...all the evidence points to it." Instead, she takes them into her arms and forgives - encouraging empathy in the reader. (The one exception to this rule seems to be Paul's stepfather but, as he remains nameless and only exists in Paul's memories, we are meant to understand that he is in essence not one of Braunstein's characters.) She uses the parental characters of the novel as a mirror for this. Some are more sympathetic than others, but in the end all of them forgive their children as stipulated in the first half of the book: "They were going to forgive her. It was decided. It had always been decided, even before the girl ran, even before she was born. You forgive your child. You are always forgiving them, always, every moment, every breath. It's the work of parenthood." 

There is certainly a sense of voyeurism in the framing of the novel. Braunstein even provides an actual peeping tom character to illustrate the idea of looking in on someone else's life. But that voyeurism is also a kind of prescription for introspection. It's not really accusatory so much as an observation on the author's part: we were all children once, we've all had a feeling of being lost or being "missing" at some point (don't all teenagers feel that at some point or another?), and no matter what our fear is, or what we are running from, we all fear and we all run and we all go missing at some point in our lives, literally or no. And it is in that running, and in the subsequent reinvention, that we find the our true selves, our eventual sweet relief. It's a strong statement coming from a new and fairly young author, but that hardly makes it any less true.