Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist~★★★★★

Author: Edward Baptist
Title: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and Making of American Capitalism
Release Date: September 9, 2014
Publisher: Basic Books
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution—the nation’s original sin, perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from America’s later success. But to do so robs the millions who suffered in bondage of their full legacy.
As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States. In the span of a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United States grew into a modern, industrial, and capitalist economy. Until the Civil War, Baptist explains, the most important American economic innovations were ways to make slavery ever more profitable. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from enslaved African Americans. Thus the United States seized control of the world market for cotton, the key raw material of the Industrial Revolution, and became a wealthy nation with global influence.
Told through intimate slave narratives, plantation records, newspapers, and the words of politicians, entrepreneurs, and escaped slaves, The Half Has Never Been Told offers a radical new interpretation of American history. It forces readers to reckon with the violence at the root of American supremacy, but also with the survival and resistance that brought about slavery’s end—and created a culture that sustains America’s deepest dreams of freedom."

Taryn's Review: This book is powerful. This book is challenging. This book should replace everything you thought you knew about slavery in the United States. As a person who works in public history, I am always looking for books to help me expand what I know and find new ways to reach my audience, but when I picked up this book, I had no idea the impact it would have on me personally.

There is a lot of misinformation about slavery in the United States and I confront it daily in my interactions with the public. The topic can be uncomfortable for some people, and more often than not, the discussions that arise with the public tend to be simplistic...not because the public can't handle the truth, but because the basis on which they build their understanding is normally fundamentally flawed with bad and wrong information. I can only help change that foundation with  willing participants and there are some participants that are very unwilling to believe that what they know may not be true. If you are not well-versed in United States history beyond your high-school and college textbooks, let your preconceived ideas about slavery leave your mind as you begin reading Edward Baptist's monograph. Baptist is a scholar (with a doctorate degree in history) who meticulously researched this work and generated a powerful argument. This book will provide you with a fantastic understanding of the different types of slavery that made the United States as powerful as it was (and is).

The book also had a lot of difficult and upsetting stories that needed told and need to be read. The problem with slavery is that it isn't talked about enough, and oftentimes when it is, it has been minimized and marginalized to the point that people can have the impression that there ever existed such a thing as a "good" slave owner. Primary records from the enslaved persons themselves are rare, but Baptist used what was available and inserted prose to give life to stories that weren't recorded. I read a review where someone bashed Baptist for this, but personally I don't think he injected anything that wasn't happening. For academics, we know the implied and what other conditions were at play, but Baptist's skill at writing them out only created a richer, deeper connection with the subjects and it is time we start feeling that compassion that has so long been removed from the institution of slavery. If prose is what's needed to help people understand the depth of suffering involved in slavery, I support Baptist's use of prose.

Don't read this book if you are completely convinced that you already know everything about slavery in the United States because the stories and the thesis will be lost on you. Read this book if you want your mind opened to the complexities and real-life conditions that impacted an entire race people. Read this book if you want to build a comprehensive, cohesive foundation of American history that doesn't omit the role that slavery, slave owners, slave traders, and the enslaved had on shaping the nation. Read this book because it will break your heart and open your eyes to how the history you've learned has neglected to tell you the entire story. Read this book to help you understand why this subject isn't talked about the same way other historical events are and to ask yourself why this is, and how you can be a part of the changing history narrative on what we expect and perceive from our collective history as Americans.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr~★★★1/2

Author: Anthony Doerr
Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio; read by Zach Appelman
Genre: Fiction

Audio Book Cover: "From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge."

Taryn's Review: Initially I heard about this book through rave online reviews, so I immediately added myself to my library's wait-list. The wait time was much, much longer for the printed book (no, I don't have an e-reader...yet!), so I opted to wait for the audio book to become available. Once it was my turn to check out the book, I was a little intimidated by the size...13 discs, many of which ended up being over an hour of spoken audio. I knew I had a time crunch since I wouldn't be able to renew the audio book, so I made listening to the audio book a priority during my daily commute.

I know I'm the anomaly with my rating, but let me preface by saying that I did not hate the book. In fact, I enjoyed many parts of the book and some of the characters. That said, I am a language-lover. Great use of vocabulary strung together just perfectly is my weakness. This book was wordy, but I rarely felt like the passages or words were truly beautiful in the context of the book. Oftentimes I felt like certain words were unneeded, or that other words were chosen during a search for synonyms to substitute for more widely recognized words. For me, an example of a beautifully-written work was Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and using it as my guideline, All the Light We Cannot See paled in literary comparison.

There was also a part in the book where I questioned why exactly Marie-Laure was hiding the jewel; the author even had Marie-Laure ask herself this question, but Marie-Laure did not answer herself. Given the circumstances and Marie-Laure's ultimate fate for the jewel, I don't understand why the scenario even happened. One could argue because her father protected the jewel, but what harm would it have been to Marie-Laure to preserve her life for something her father would find less valuable than his daughter?

For me, Werner was the star of the book. His insights, his growth, and his recognitions were all powerful and emotional. I wanted more Werner and less Marie-Laure as the book progressed forward. The undercurrent of fate and destiny in Werner's story was also moving...was Werner's fate sealed the moment he found the broken radio in the trashcan? Did the war interrupt Werner's future, or did the commanders that sent young Werner into the field determine his life course? Was Werner supposed to meet Marie-Laure, and if so, for what purpose?

The more I listened, the more I wanted to skip Marie-Laure's chapters and stay with Werner's story. The heavy writing style also weighed down the book, and it often felt clunky to my ears. I will admit there was a flood of relief when the book was finally finished and I knew I wouldn't have to dedicate anymore time to the story. The ending of the book, and I mean the very ending, seemed incredibly blunt considered the amount of time I invested in the book. As I said, I do not hate this book, but I'm not in the camp that found this book to be amazing or rave-worthy. It's an interesting woven story of two people whose lives were disrupted by WWII and how the war impacted their futures.