Wednesday, May 31, 2017

...and speaking of lost cities: whoa.


- Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan Vols. I & II by John Lloyd Stephens
             9781605204468, Cosimo Classics, 2008
             originally published 1841

 -Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vols. I and II, by John Lloyd Stephens
               9781605203799, Cosimo Classics, 2008
               originally published 1843

- Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and The Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya, by William Carlsen
                 9780062407405, William Morrow, 2016

I don't know if anyone else does this, but when I read nonfiction, I go through the listed sources like a fine-toothed comb to find more about what I'm reading.  While I had some issues with the book,  one very nice thing to come out of my reading of Preston's Lost City of the Monkey God was the reference to this book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Vols. I & II -- so voilá, within a few days it was in my mailbox.  I had thought to only read the sections about the Yucatan since I was just there a few weeks ago, but I started from the beginning and got totally caught up in Stephens' book.  What may seem dull to quite a lot of people kept me flipping pages.  Stephens' account of his travels with partner Frederick Catherwood reads like an old-fashioned adventure story combined with history and the thrill of discovery as Stephens and Catherwood only make their way through Central America during a time of major political upheaval, battling dense jungles, illness, and even sharks while in a leaky boat.   Its true importance though, as Carlsen so aptly describes in his own book, is that these two people "altered the world's understanding of human history." More on that later.

After finishing that book and still hungry for more, I picked up Carlsen's Jungle of Stone, made it about halfway through, and then realized that Stephens had published yet another travel account, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, also in two volumes.  Like any good nerd would do, I put the Carlsen book on hold  until I could read the second Stephens book, then picked it up again where I left off.

This book was less of an adventure story (although it did have its moments) than an account documenting the often-harrowing travels of Stephens and Catherwood through the Yucatan, where they made a circuit of several ruins from Copán to Tulum, as Carlsen calls it,  "their last great ghost city."

Fascinating stuff, made all the more interesting since, as I said, I was just there, which was the reason behind why I wanted to read these books.  Last year we were there as well and visited Coba, which is only briefly mentioned in Stephens' account, and made it up an eight-story pyramid,

my photo

while this year we did Tulum:

my photo

It's one thing to visit these places after they've been excavated, gone over, studied and written about, but imagine what it must have been like for these two men in the 1840s, coming across these places and having to hack out enough jungle just to get close enough to examine them. Their wonder at these discoveries is well documented in this book, along with Stephens' theories about the people who built these once-flourishing cities.  Their travels took them not only to these still-unexplored ruins, but also underground at times, for example at Bolonchen, as captured by Catherwood's excellent illustrations (pp 97, 99, and 101 respectively)


the cave opening at Bolonchen

making their way down through the opening into the cave on a ladder that kept falling apart

and

exploring the passages leading from the main chamber.


Both books are very much worth looking into for anyone who has an interest in Central American history, the history of the Mayan civilization, and archaeology; it's also great for armchair travelers.  But the most important thing about both of these books is explained very nicely in William Carlsen's book, Jungle of Stone.  


This book not only gives a great summary of both of Stephens' accounts, but also examines the lives of both Stephens and Catherwood. While Stephens was very well known, Catherwood's life  has been an enigma, and Carlsen gives as much insight into this man as is probably possible, since very little is known about him.  He  also examines the archaeology, the history and the studies that have been done since Stephens and Catherwood first made their way to the area to find this "hidden jungle of stones" that would "begin the process of unraveling the Maya's amazing, improbable history."   But there's much more here -- for example, the current view before their trek of discovery was that
 "the Americas had always been a land occupied by primitive, inferior people," 
but that notion would be radically altered after Stephens published his books.  As Carlsen notes,
"After the publication of their books, the mysterious stone ruins in Central America, the vast, sophisticated road network of the Inca in South America, and the monuments and temples of the Aztecs could no longer be viewed as the Lost Tribes of Israel, the ancient seafaring Phoenicians, or the survivors of lost Atlantis. They were understood to be solely indigenous in origin, the products of the imagination, intelligence and creativity of Native Americans."
In short, Stephens and Catherwood not only paved the way for future exploration, but their discoveries and their keen awareness of the significance of what they'd found actually turned our own prevailing assumption about the development of civilization on its ear. And seriously, all you have to do is to visit a place like Chichen Itza or Tulum to discover the truth of what Carlsen (and earlier, Stephens) is saying.

I can very highly recommend all three books here -- reading the first one was often like being in the middle of an adventure, and there were times when I wondered how this guy managed to stay alive.   The second book was just sheer pleasure to read, and I'm already thinking that next year we'll go to Mérida as a home base for exploring more ruins.  Carlsen's book is absolutely perfect for readers who may be interested but don't want to spend the time reading Stephens' accounts, since he gives the highlights of both but adds in so much more.

I can't begin to say how much I enjoyed these books.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston

9781455540006
Grand Central Publishing, 2017
326 pp

hardcover

I took this book along with me on vacation in Mexico a few weeks back and read it after a day touring Tulum. I know that Tulum is a Mayan site and is not in Honduras where the action in this book takes place,  but being there and experiencing the ruins only whetted my appetite for a story of exploration in the dense jungles of the Central American rainforests.  If the truth must be told, I'm also a huge devotee of stories concerning exploration and archaeology, both fiction and nonfiction, and I've been reading about archaeological finds since I was a kid.

The "Lost City of the Monkey God" is one title for a lost city said to be "hidden in rugged Mosquitia," the circled area in the map below.


What the map doesn't reveal is that this area that covers roughly thirty-two thousand miles, and that it is  a "land of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers and mountains."  According to the author, the area was once labeled on maps as the Portal del Infierno, "the Gates of Hell."  It is a dangerous place to explore, not only due to the hazards posed by "the thickest jungle in the world" but also because of the fact that, as Preston says, "Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world," and that a whopping eighty percent of the cocaine that comes to the US via South America comes through Honduras, "most of it via Mosquitia" leaving "much of the surrounding countryside and towns" of the area in the hands of the cartels.

In 1526 Cortés wrote a report to Emperor Charles V while off the coast of Honduras, saying that he believed that there were "very extensive and rich provinces"... that "will exceed Mexico in riches..." According to Cortés,  this "new land" was known by the Indians as "the Old Land of Red Earth," and it existed "somewhere in the mountains of Mosquitia."  While he never explored there, twenty years later a missionary "found himself looking down on a large and prosperous city spread out in a river valley," and although he didn't go into the city, his report to Charles V kept the legend alive.  The legends of as-yet undiscovered lost cities continued to flourish over the next few centuries, until as Preston says, "by the dawn of the twentieth century," they had "coalesced into a single legend of a sacred and forbidden Ciudad Blanca," so-named because of the stories collected by Pech Indians (aka the Paya) of Mosquitia that told about a "White House" located "beyond a pass in the mountains at the headwaters of two rivers."  It was also known as "the City of the Monkey God," and more than one explorer set off in search for this legendary place.

After going through a brief history of attempts to discover this lost city, Preston's account reveals how he joined an expedition to the area after a documentary filmmaker named Steve Elkins had decided to make a search of the area using lidar technology.  The cost to do the whole area was prohibitive, so Elkins settled on a search area of about fifty square miles. The gist of the search you can read about here in a New Yorker article written by Douglas Preston in 2013; suffice it to say that not only did Elkins and his team discover one large site, they discovered a second one as well. Most of the book details the ground expedition -- pitfalls, surprises and discoveries, etc., -- as well as its aftermath.

I have to say that I was pretty much glued to this book as far as this expedition goes because of my fascination with this sort of thing, and I do believe he does a fine job of relating events for armchair travelers like myself who will never be part of anything so exciting.  He manages to do it in such a way that transmits the excitement, the frustrations, the hard work, the perils, etc., involved so that it becomes a bit of a page turner.  I also enjoyed reading about the history of other attempts at finding the Lost City that he provides, which puts the search for this particular site in a larger context. But having said that, I do have a couple of big niggles.

Aside from a couple of issues re sources (using his brother Richard's books as source material for one example; not using more current scholarship that examines other possible reasons for decimation of indigenous peoples of the area as another example), I have a big complaint.  Quite a bit of space was used by the author in this book  to discuss a horrific illness that some of the expedition members picked up, brought on by bites from parasitic sand fleas at the team's camp.  I didn't mind that so much, since it was interesting, but he uses this potentially-deadly illness to bring up dangerous effects of global warming.   Now before anyone gets huffy, does the eyeroll, and starts calling me a denier,  that's not the case at all. In fact, I totally share Preston's views about climate change and global warming.  It's just that it came across as out of place in this book, and left me thinking that perhaps this is not the correct venue for that particular discussion.  Another thing:  the history of diseases brought to this area that he offers in making his point as to what may have caused the disappearance of the indigenous population of the "Lost City" is certainly compelling, but Preston is a journalist/author, not a scientist, and once again,  his own speculations seemed misdirected and out of place here, especially without evidence from the site itself to back them up.

On the whole, I enjoyed the story of the modern expedition, the history of the searches for the "Lost City," and as long as Preston stayed there, all was quite good and I'm happy to have read it.  Considering the caveats mentioned above, I can recommend it to people like myself who are interested in this sort of thing.

You can find more about this expedition, complete with short video, in an article the author wrote for The New Yorker of January 2017.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston



9781590518144
Other Press, 2016
340 pp

hardcover


 Jeremy Thorpe's leadership of the  Liberal Party began in 1967.  Then, after a career which set him on a path to participation in the highest ranks of British politics,  just twelve short years later he was not only out of a job and in disgrace, but standing trial for conspiracy to murder.

In this book, the author traces exactly how this happened, following the story of Norman (Josiffe) Scott, who had claimed that he and Thorpe had had a sexual relationship starting in 1960  when Thorpe forcibly sodomized Scott.   Thorpe, of course, denied the claim, while Scott would tell others exactly how Thorpe had ruined his life. One huge bone of contention between Scott and Thorpe was that Scott had lost his National Insurance Card, which Thorpe had promised to replace and never did.  As Thorpe continued to rise in the political firmament, Scott's mental health and living situation deteriorated to the point where Scott felt compelled to tell his story to anyone who would listen.While nothing was really done about Scott's accusations, over the years Thorpe realized that Scott had documents (letters that could prove Scott's claims)  -- and that his very existence could become problematic vis-a-vis Thorpe's career.  He allegedly hired a hitman to take care of Scott, who proceeded to bungle the job, garnering the attention of the police and the press by killing a dog instead.

I'm not someone who is much into reading about scandals, since I prefer to devote my reading time to other pursuits.  However, while the murder plot is interesting, there's much more in this book worth examining.  First, of course, is how quickly Thorpe's political connections closed ranks to protect their man and their party, down to the prosecutor who obviously failed to "prosecute the case as vigorously as he might have done," with some people commenting that his ambitions led him to not wish "to ruffle too many feathers." Thorpe's friend Peter Bessell continued to cover up for him even after he knew about the murder plot, based on some long-standing, blind loyalty until Thorpe began to throw Bessell under the bus.  Even the judge in the case, if Preston is correct here, had already taken sides as the trial began. Then there are the police -- shutting down any inquiries that may have revealed the truth of things, hiding documents that could wreck Thorpe's career, accusing Scott of "hysterical fantasizing," and putting Scott through the emotional wringer instead of treating his complaints as valid. Second, and probably the most interesting aspect of this book for me, is the fact that until 1967, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Even after the law was changed (a brief history given here as well),  gay men continued to be treated contemptuously, and politicians like Thorpe continued to remain reluctant to come out of the closet publicly.  During the trial against Thorpe, for example, Scott's sexuality was put on trial more than once, with one barrister saying that homosexuals were known for their "terrible propensity for malice."

While Preston can tell a story like nobody's business, I was a little disoriented at first with the lack of footnotes. Sources are also nonexistent, except for mentions of people and books in the Acknowledgements section, and even there we're told that "All the exchanges between Jeremy Thorpe and Peter Bessell come from Bessell's book, Cover-Up," Bessell's aide-memoire, so buyer beware.  On the other hand, it is so well told that you'll find yourself becoming immersed from the beginning and unable to stop reading.

Recommended.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Mayor of Mogadishu, by Andrew Harding. Read this book.



9781250072344
St. Martin's Press, 2016
304 pp

arc - my thanks to Lauren, and apologies for taking so long to get to the book.

I didn't quite know what to expect as I sat down to read this book, but The Mayor of Mogadishu turned out to be a book I couldn't put down once I'd started it.  Not only is the "mayor," Mohamoud "Tarzan" Nur," a fascinating subject in his own right, but the book also offers its readers a brief look at the history of this country, one that is probably best known by most people outside Somalia from what they've heard on the news.  But broadcast news rarely gives too much time to the people and especially the history behind these stories, hence the importance of books like this one.

Andrew Harding has chosen to focus his story on Mohamoud Nur, aka "Tarzan," a name Nur picked up while living in an orphange beginning in 1960, just as Somalia was about to celebrate its independence from colonial rule.  Nur was born into a poor family of nomads, and as a killer famine loomed, his mother, trying to save her children, had to make the choice of who to send off with relatives.Two brothers were given over to an aunt who took Tarzan and his younger brother to Mogadishu where Mohamoud was sent to the orphanage. He grew up in the city, but when the country began to fall because of the civil war, he got out and made his way over time to the UK, where both he and his wife began working on behalf of the Somali refugees.  But even there they had a lot of work to do -- while they were trying to get their fellow Somalis to come together as a community, it seems that ongoing clan rivalries continued even among those caught up in the diaspora.

The concept of clan is an important one here, and it is a huge thread that runs through this book.  As the author notes,
"Most nationalities in Africa are fairly new constructs, political experiments, colonial carve-ups roping together different religions and ethnic groups. Not so with Somalis. They speak one language. They share one religion and culture. They occupy a single chunk of territory -- albeit not all within their borders....And yet, within that Somali identity, clans matter profoundly. At times they offer the only credible source of protection and justice. At times they divide and destroy." 
As the author also reveals, it doesn't end with clan -- each has a "sub-clan, or a sub-sub-clan..."  causing rifts and rivalries that would return with a vengeance once the central power structure under dictator Siad Barre collapsed.

Once the Nurs were settled in London, raising their children, getting involved etc., a phone call in June 2006 brought Nur back to Somalia, when "for the first time in fifteen years, the fighting had stopped throughout Mogadishu."  It was the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that finally stepped in to fill in "a vacuum," and as people were tired of anarchical warlord rule, Tarzan threw in his lot with the ICU saying that "these are the right people to make peace in Somalia,...No more clan rubbish." But things went wrong when ICU's militia, Al Shabab, began "confiscating weapons, building up its private army, and waiting for the right moment to unleash a far more radical agenda."  Moderates began losing ground to militants, who "did not want a deal," but rather "wanted war."  Dividing his time between Mogadishu and England, Nur eventually ended up as the titular Mayor of Mogadishu from 2010 to 2014, and Harding's book examines his policies, his politics, and his efforts to bring a city back from the rubble. It was in 2010 that a new provisional government was formed and he was called on to be a part of it; as the author states in an interview with NPR, he was "this one man who had a few city blocks where he could experiment and make a difference."

 To his credit, however, the author presents Nur not just as some sort of major hero but also examines competing views of this man since his presence sparked a major amount of controversy.  One person, for example, said of Nur that
"He's not the most technocratic guy. He's not someone who understands civil service reform, or how to build up local government. But maybe he was a perfect fit. Mogadishu needed a pioneer, a rookie, a rough, hard man. Someone to hold public rallies and talk about sensitive issues. Someone to pull the masses out of despair."
He was also accused of major corruption, of bringing problems to Mogadishu with the return of people who'd been part of the Diaspora, and at one point after having been fired as mayor,  he even says to the author that "anyone against me is a bad person," and that "Whoever is on my side is in the right. Whoever is against me is wrong."  He is evidently a figure about whom people will have to make up their own minds, but however he comes out in the historical record, he's a man worth reading about.

What makes this book so compelling is not just Nur's story, but the fact that the author, who's been in Somalia and Mogadishu a number of  times, really gets that it's important to get past the stereotypes by getting into the history of this area and the history of the people here in order to try to gain an understanding.  He makes no bones about describing misguided foreign policy based on a lack of cultural knowledge that actually may have helped with the current state of affairs in a less than positive way.  It's a book that people really need to read because, as I said, those who depend solely for the nightly news are only getting the very tip of the iceberg, possibly making faulty judgments on an entire people without really knowing anything about them. As this is becoming more prevalent nowadays, books like this one which inform but also reveal much compassion are absolutely necessary these days.

As I said earlier, I had no idea what to expect from this book, but I'm very impressed and highly, highly recommend it to anyone.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

9780670785971
Viking, 2016
460 pp

hardcover
(my copy from the publisher - thank you!)

"If the American dream were real, upward mobility would be far more in evidence." 

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is certainly one of the most informative books American history books I've read this year; quite frankly it was an eye opener.  If someone had told me that Thomas Jefferson referred to the white underclass of his own time as "rubbish" I probably wouldn't have believed it, since he's revered as a founding father of this nation.  But he actually did use that label, and he wasn't the only founding father or American politician to use that sort of term to describe the "wretched and landless poor" that have been part of our history and our culture since this country began.  And that's just for starters.  But that's the point here -- as the dustjacket blurb reveals, the author
"explodes our comforting myths about equality in the land of opportunity, uncovering the crucial legacy of the ever-present poor white trash."
She also, as she says in this interview, hopes that
"readers, pundits and politicians will stop repeating the tired myth of the American Dream and appreciate instead that the dismissal of the poor has been a crucial and consistent part of US history. Until we fully comprehend the past, our country will continue to paper over class division with empty rhetoric. For whether we like to acknowledge it or not, the history of "white trash" lies dangerously close to the heart of our deeply conflicted, long-ignored class politics."  
And quite frankly, if ever a time we see this in action, it is definitely now coming up to this year's presidential election, which makes this book extremely timely. So now for the nutshell summary:

Isenberg poses the following question in her book:
"How does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?," 
and it is this question, answered through an examination of an incredible array of source material, that is the focus of this study. As the dustjacket blurb notes, "white trash have always been near the center of major debates over the character of the American identity," and here she examines just how this has been the case over the last four hundred years. She does this by careful examination and analysis of several sources in contemporary politics, literature, scientific theory and various policies at different moments of America's history.

 Class is, as the author notes "the most outstanding, if routinely overlooked element in presuppositions about early settlement." It was mainly land ownership that perpetuated class distinctions, since it "was the principal source of wealth." Those on the margins without land "had little chance to escape servitude."  As this study also reveals, "The white poor have been with us in various guises" throughout our country's history.  The United States didn't even exist when some British notables began to classify the idle and "wandering" poor as  "human failure" and proposed exporting them to the New World, even going so far as to refer to the poor as "waste people," encompassing indentured servants, slaves, convicts, and men weighed down by debt. As settlement continued, the definition of "waste people" went on to include the landless poor, causing  a "stigma" that would "leave its mark on white trash" throughout our history.

Revered figures such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams and other founding fathers can take their own share of the blame for perpetuating class divisions. For instance,  Washington thought that the foot soldiers in the Continental army should consist only of "the lower class of people," while Jefferson was more harsh, describing public education as mainly for the benefit of students "raked from the rubbish." Even John Adams felt that it was natural for people to have a "passion for distinction," with his idea that "There must be one, indeed, who is the last and the lowest of the species." Poor whites have also been relegated to the status of their own particular, separate  "breed," as a means to marginalize these people so that the concept of equality and class could be maintained. As the author comments on this issue, she notes that "If whiteness was not an automatic badge of superiority ... then the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were unobtainable."

As she explains the historical circumstances behind all of this, we also learn that referring to these groups of people in terms that reiterate and reinforce the poor as "waste" has continued over four centuries:
"Waste people. Offscourings. Lubbers. Bogtrotters. Rascals. Rubbish. Squatters. Crackers. Clay-eaters.Tackies. Mudsills. Scalawags. Briar Hoppers. Hillbillies. Low-downers. White niggers. Degenerates. White trash. Rednecks. Trailer trash. Swamp people." 
She also reveals that somehow their socioeconomic condition has long been thought by those outside of this group as being their own fault. They have been blamed for perpetuating their own bad "breeding," which along with pitting the white underclass against newly-freed slaves, was a factor used by later proponents of eugenics to bolster their positions. But even worse, they have been
"blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defective breed.  Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilization, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in town has been lost."  (320) 
And finally, another key point in this book, is that "Each era had its own means of distancing its version of white trash from the mainstream ideal," and that
 "the discomfort middle-class Americans feel when forced to acknowledge the existence of poverty highlights the disconnect between image and reality."
 In the same interview noted at the beginning of this post,  Isenberg states that
"It is difficult for Americans to talk about class because it contradicts our myths and rhetoric about the promise of the American Dream. Americans celebrate the abstract notion of equality, but history tells us that we have never embraced genuine equality." 
To me, she's hit the nail on the head with that last statement, and those who would care to argue otherwise are the ones who genuinely need to read this book.

White Trash  was very informative and I found myself going long stretches of time without being able to put the book down. This isn't a pop history for the masses sort of thing, and I would find myself repeatedly going to the back to read her notes, iPad at the ready.

 I also happen to agree with many of the major points she makes here, most especially her statement that
"We are a country that imagines itself as democratic, and yet the majority has never cared much for equality... Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power."  (316)
This is a dominant theme that carries on throughout her work, and she does prove her point over and over again.

As fascinated as I was with much of what she has to say here, I do have some issues.  My biggest problem here is when she says that "class has its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from intersection with race." I'm not so sure I quite buy that statement as it pertains to class in America.  Second, I didn't find the book to be an actual "400-year" history per se, since a large part of her focus is on the South at the expense of understanding the history of the poor white class in other regions in this country.  It's tough to be fully comprehensive when writing a history spanning so much time, and given how intensely she makes her case for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, aside from a brief discussion dealing with a few modern presidents, a bit on the eugenics movement, and "white trash" in books and on television, there is little depth of discussion regarding the white underclass in the twentieth century.

Despite its flaws though, I would certainly recommend it because it is a valuable study that really does debunk some of the  myths about the idealized conception of white equality in America as well as the reality behind the American dream itself.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips

9780393293012
W.W. Norton, 2016
301 pp

hardcover

"... the young fellers are growing up sort of with the idea that this is a white man's county."   -- (119)


Between September and October of 1912, all but a very few of the 1,098 African-American citizens (according to the 1910 census)  living in Forsyth County Georgia had been run out of the county.  The idea of "sundown towns," or communities which purposefully excluded African-Americans from living there, is nothing new, but this book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, reveals that not only were these people driven out of the county, but also that a "deliberate and sustained campaign of terror" on the part of white residents kept African-Americans out until the last few years of the 20th century.

The author, Patrick Phillips, had lived in Forsyth county, having moved there as a child from Alabama. It's not like he wasn't used to racism but when he heard some kids on his school bus making racial slurs, he finally asked a friend "why everyone in the county seemed to hate black people so much, especially since there were none of them around."  It was then that he heard a story that stuck with him and prompted him to start a search for the truth, wondering if perhaps it wasn't "just a racist fantasy."  In 2003 he found something that started him on his journey.  Doing some other research, he decided to check out that old story, got online, typed in "Forsyth" and "1912" into an old newspaper database and found out that yes indeed, the story he'd been told was absolutely true.  More than anything, it was a photograph in the October 4th issue of the Atlanta Constitution that gave him his first glimpses of the "faces of black Forsyth," in a story with the caption "Troops on Guard as Two Rapists Are Convicted: Story of Revolting Assault Arouses Great Indignation in Cumming Court."



courtesy of Powells.com



The "revolting assault" involving those pictured allegedly occurred in September, 1912, when three young African-Americans were accused of the rape and murder of a white girl.  Just about a week or so earlier, another white woman had woken up screaming because she'd woken to find an African-American man in her bedroom, four young men were arrested, and a black minister was horsewhipped for casting aspersions on the woman's character.  The second crime, however,  unleashed a coordinated campaign to get rid of every black citizen in the county -- involving "night riders," threats,   arson, and worse -- any kind of terror imaginable at the time was utilized here to run these people out of the county completely, including threats against the more upper/middle class white residents who had black household help.  As time went on, white people just sort of laid claim to land previously owned by the former Forsyth residents so that soon any vestiges of what were African-American homes, farms, churches, etc. soon disappeared, and life went on in a now-all white Forsyth County, basically erasing the fact that black people had even lived there. Things were so white that even the once-in-a-while visit by other African-Americans to the county would result in threats, which often included loaded guns pointed at the faces of black chauffeurs of visitors. Scariest yet -- none of this changed at all until determined marchers in 1987 came to Forsyth county to hold demonstrations; even then law enforcement wasn't enough to control the white anger and hatred.  Even then, things were very slow to change.

Stop for a moment and think about what I just said here about African-Americans not even being able to even enter the county until 1987.   You might ask "what about the civil rights movement of the 1960s," and the simple answer would be that it didn't happen for Forsyth. You might also ask why a book about events in 1912 is something you should read in 2016.  The answer for me is this: just this past summer I was in the middle of my morning routine of journal reading, perusing the news and going through my facebook news feed, and came across this photo of a billboard for a congressional candidate  in Tennessee:


To say that I was appalled and actually screamed out loud is putting it mildly, but getting back to Blood at the Root, it's obvious to me that the desire to "make America white again" mirrors Forsyth's "this is a white man's county" and this ugliness hasn't died out at all. 

There's so much going on in this book and obviously I can't possibly say everything I want to say about it here.  It's an incredibly difficult book to read on an emotional level -- seems like we're doing a backslide into this sort of intolerant, ugly and just downright frightening behavior yet again.  Just a few nit-picky things: not keen on the connection between the ouster of the Cherokees and the African-Americans -- this part needed a whole lot more, in-depth comparison to make it work for me. Secondly, even though Phillips did a great job in revealing how the president of the United States at the time reneged on campaign promises he used to gain the black vote  leaving many African-Americans poor, without hope of jobs and often fired from the positions they already held in Washington DC, I wouldn't have exactly labeled that as "racial cleansing" in the same sense he uses it regarding Forsyth County.  But once again, the best part of this well-researched book lies in how he traces the sad history of events to give his readers an insight into "the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated" here in the United States. 

So far, this book is picking up excellent reader reviews; as I said, it's a tough book to get through but it's also a story that needs to come out into the open air. Very well done and highly, highly recommended. 

News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

9781400034932
Vintage, 2008
originally published as Noticia de un secuestro, 1996
191 pp

paperback


When a disclaimer pops up at the beginning of every episode of a tv series I'm watching, to me it's like throwing down a challenge. We recently finished watching Narcos on Netflix, the series that over the course of the first two seasons was focused on Pablo Escobar.  At the beginning of each episode there's a blurb saying something along the lines of  some of what you're about to see has been fictionalized although it's based on real events.  Once we finished season two, my biggest questions focused on the truth behind US involvement, based on the portrayal of the creepy CIA agent running things behind the scenes, interfering with what the DEA was doing in the name of future American interests in the country.  Well, of course I did what any true-blue geek would do when it comes to the involvement of the CIA and the American military in a foreign country, and went to the National Security Archives (here) to try to get the real story on what was going on.  Reading each and every document mentioned in this summary, I saw that journalist Mark Bowden was discussed re his research, which led me to read his Killing Pablo,  which details US involvement in the hunt for Pablo Escobar.  That book, in turn, led me to News of a Kidnapping, which despite a number of readers' complaints, is neither "a snoooze" nor "a mediocre effort." Au contraire -- it's a book I read on the proverbial edge of my seat, hanging on every word.

In the acknowledgments section at the beginning, Marquez explains what's behind the writing of this book. In 1993, one of ten kidnapping victims,  Maruja Pachón  came to the author and "suggested" that he write a book about her abduction and her six months in captivity and her husband's "persistent efforts to obtain her release."  Marquez started working on it, but well into the first draft, he realized that
"it was impossible to separate her kidnapping from nine other abductions that occurred at the same time in Colombia."
Why? Well, by his reasoning, and as will be discussed in this book,
"They were not, in fact, ten distinct abductions -- as it had seemed at first -- but a single collective abduction of ten carefully chosen individuals, which had been carried out by the same group and for only one purpose."
 Behind these particular kidnappings, of course, was Pablo Escobar and his "Extraditables," whose motivation was to force the government into backing down on its stance on extradition to the United States.

In a nutshell, the central focus of News of a Kidnapping is the stories of these abductions, the victims' experiences in captivity, and the families' efforts to get these people released, but to tell that story, the author places these kidnappings in the wider context of Colombia's troubled history of politics, narco trafficking and terrorism.  It also follows how Escobar went from being host to "Politicians, industrialists, businesspeople, journalists..." at his Hacienda Nápoles to becoming "the biggest prey in our history. Of Escobar, Marquez writes that "The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil," which is shown here in terms of the wave of violence aimed at presidential candidates and other political officials, cops murdered for the bounty on their heads, and explosions in the streets that killed innocent victims.

 After reading what other readers have said about this book, it seems that many people were looking for Gabriel Garcia Marquez to give this book the magical realism touch he's applied in his novels.  A number of people were disappointed by the fact that this book is a journalistic take on events, rather than a novel.  I've seen it called "a snoooze," "boring," and "flat," and of course, there are those people who also watched Narcos and were expecting something along those lines, one person noting that she preferred the TV series. Hmmm.  Well, as I always say, to each his/her own, but seriously, it kept me on the edge of my chair pretty much the entire time with stomach twisted in knots. Then again, I'm the sort of person who likes to try to ferret out the truth of what's underneath the fiction, and in this case, it's pretty damn harrowing.

Highly, highly recommended.  And when you finish this one, read his Clandestine in Chile -- another excellent book.