Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Vanishing Half

Posted by nliakos on April 7, 2021

by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books 2020)

In a tiny town in rural Louisiana founded by light-skinned freedmen, identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes reach the age of sixteen, then run away together to New Orleans, where they find work and where Stella vanishes, passing for white. The book tells the twins’ stories separately, as well as the stories of their daughters: Jude Winston, the dark one, and Kennedy Sanders, the blonde California girl who grows up unaware that she is biracial. We feel Desiree’s pain at being left behind by her sister and witness her transformation from the wild girl into the woman who will eventually go back home and take care of her mother until the mother dies, trapped in the hometown she wanted to desperately to escape. Stella is trapped too, by her decision to pass as white, which condemns her to a life of lying. Married to Blake Sanders, a wealthy white man, she can never let her guard down, and her only friend, ironically, is a black woman who moves in across the street, until the black family is driven out of the cushy white neighborhood. Jude, teased by the lighter-skinned children in Mallard, flees to Los Angeles to attend college, where she falls in love with a transgender man, decides to become a doctor, and accidentally stumbles onto her aunt and cousin. And Kennedy, who turns down college for a career in musical theater and soap operas, comes to terms with her racial identity, maintaining a relationship of sorts with her dark cousin.

Even the minor characters are carefully developed: Early, who loves Desiree, and Reese, Jude’s transgender boyfriend (nee Therese). I liked the characters and enjoyed the story.

Review by The Bibliophile:

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Kill Switch: The Rise of the Modern Senate and the Crippling of American Democracy

Posted by nliakos on March 28, 2021

by Adam Jentleson (Liveright 2021)

Jentleson, who worked for Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, had me convinced by the end of the Introduction (“The Little Harm Thesis”) that the filibuster must be abolished . The rest of the book explains what the framers of the Constitution wanted and didn’t want regarding minority rights; details the creation and history of this tool of minority rule; and suggests how to solve the problem of the filibuster in our times.


Chapter One, “Birth of a Notion”: The case of the background checks bill that went down to defeat after the Sandy Hook shooting illustrates how a tiny majority of Senators can doom extremely popular legislation. The Framers of the Constitution, fresh off the failure of the Articles of Confederation, strongly believed in majority rule. However, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, John Quincy Adams’s Vice President, would create the concept of unlimited debate, a tool with which a small minority could prevent popular legislation from passing.

Chapter Two, “Victorious in the Midst of Unbroken Defeats”: the “previous question rule” was used to control and limit debate when it became obstructionist. In 1806, it was accidentally removed by Aaron Burr. No one really noticed at the time, but this would prove very significant. Calhoun, presiding over the Senate as J. Q. Adams’ VP, weakened the ability of the presiding officer to control obstructionists. Later, as a Senator himself, Calhoun developed the concept of nullification (i.e., individual states could simply nullify laws with which they did not agree) to give the minority (Southern white supremacists) a tool to block legislation, by combining the concepts of extended debate and minority rights: he claimed that the minority have the right to continue debate as long as they like, never accepting the concept of majority rule. His goals were to preserve slavery and the rich planter class to which he belonged. Calhoun had “created a bug in Madison’s code” with his concept of extended or unlimited debate (which was not yet called a filibuster).

Chapter Three, “Dawn of the Supermajority”: In the early part of the 20th century, Senate reformers created Rule 22 as a tool to end debate that went on too long, but obstructionists later used it to block bills from reaching a final vote. They considered a vote for cloture as “toxic”, impinging on the rights of the minority to be heard. Without cloture, however, the minority could hold the entire Senate hostage indefinitely, be refusing to yield the floor.

Until the 20th century, filibusters frequently delayed bills but could not stop them completely, with the exception of civil rights bills. The Southern bloc ensured discrimination against African Americans the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first time a southern filibuster against a civil rights bill was broken.

Senator Richard Russell, a white supremacist and leader of the Southern Caucus, expanded Rule 22 during the Truman administration to include cabinet and judicial nominations as well as other types of Senate work that had previously been exempted. Russell made it extremely difficult to modify the rule going forward.

Calhoun had wanted a Senate that would “give to each interest or portion of the community a negative on the others.” Russell used Rule 22 to strengthen the minority’s veto power, ensuring that “the supermajority Senate would become an enduring feature of modern American life.”

Chapter Four, “An Idea Whose Time Has Come”: Lyndon Johnson’s improbable rise to power, and how Johnson transformed the Senate, for the first time empowering the Senate Majority Leader to control the body by giving him power over committee assignments. Johnson and Russell worked together to keep Rule 22. After the breaking of the filibuster in 1964, the choice was to end the filibuster or to expand it; they expanded it.


Chapter Five, “The Superminority“: During Obama’s administration, the GOP filibustered all of Obama’s nominees, resulting in hamstrung, understaffed agencies and a critical shortage of federal judges. Finally in 2013, Majority Leader Harry Reid (Jentleson’s boss) employed the so-called “nuclear option” by exempting certain kinds of Senate votes from the filibuster, which was seen by everyone as radical at the time (“the Reid Precedent”). However, polarization (“safe” states vs. “swing” states), negative partisanship (= obstruction > achievement), bias in favor of less populated states, and the power of wealthy white anti-choice conservatives (WWACs) all work against cooperation and progress.

Chapter Six, “Outside In”: The Tea Party “superminority” takes power over establishment Republicans; Speaker Boehner, unable to control his caucus, resigns. Ted Cruz and the newly formed House Freedom Caucus force a government shutdown, and Tea Party candidates start using direct mail fundraising (very successfully) and winning primaries and elections, “surrounding” the establishment GOP with hostile forces that “reveled in defying the establishment.” Jesse Helms created right-wing organizations which made him a force to reckon with and a Senate power broker. It was he who saved Reagan’s floundering campaign, and his organizations funded much of Reagan’s presidential bid. He also brought evangelical Christians into the GOP for the first time. Although the filibuster to stop the ACA was broken, Helms’ superminority remained very powerful in the Senate.

Chapter Seven, “Means of Control”: Harry Reid: his background and how he increased the power of the Majority Leader, who since the 19th century, when the position was created, until the time of Lyndon Johnson, had not held power at all. Johnson gathered power by taking control of committee assignments and doling them out as rewards. Reid controlled his caucus using a method called “filling the tree”, which prevented Senators from amending or voting on bills he didn’t want (think of McConnell’s graveyard for Democratic bills).

Chapter Eight, “What It Takes”: Details McConnell’s rise to power in the Senate, how he got rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, and how Democrats have used the filibuster.

Chapter Nine, “The Uniter”: Obama’s promise to unite Americans “made gridlock his Achilles’ heel,” and McConnell dedicated himself to exploiting it by filibustering everything, making legislating impossible after the ACA and forcing Obama to govern by executive order. He was able to do this due to rule changes implemented after the breaking of the 1964 filibuster of the Civil Rights Act; these changes made the filibuster much easier to use–“the crucial development that gives the minority veto power over everything.” The changes included a new tracking system which allowed the Senate to go about other business during a filibuster and the “silent filibuster.” Today, the intent to filibuster replaces actual speech. McConnell invoked the “nuclear option” of exempting SCOTUS appointments from the filibuster in 2017. Jentleson writes, McConnell did not transform the Senate himself. He had the foresight to open the floodgates to corporate cash, and to use the blockade of Garland to unify the Tea Party base with the GOP establishment. He pioneered the blanket deployment of the filibuster, far beyond anything contemplated by previous leaders, But McConnell followed generations of white supremacist southern obstructionists who had come before him. Ever since John Calhoun set foot in the Senate, they had fought against Madison’s vision of a majority-rule institution, forging new ways to impose their will on a country where progress threatened their power. Under McConnell, the Senate was finally remade in Calhoun’s vision of minority rule.

Conclusion: How to Save the Senate: Jentleson claims fixing the Senate could be “comparatively easy. All it takes is fifty-one votes, political will, and a reasonable plan.” We only have to (1) restore real, open debate, (2) restore majority rule, which “narrows the minority’s options to helping the majority achieve a victory or sitting on the sidelines,” while making their choice less consequential because one way or another, the legislation supported by the majority will pass, (3) restoring senators’ ability to offer amendments to legislation, (4) take away the leadership’s monopoly on power, (5) eliminating “the incumbent-protection racket”, and (6) approving statehood for DC and other territories that want it. The goal is to make the Senate “capable of producing intelligent solutions.”

Final thought: As long as the Senate remains a kill switch that reactionary white conservatives can hit whenever they choose, it is difficult to see how America can meet the challenges it faces. No kidding!

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My Life in Seven Suitcases

Posted by nliakos on February 28, 2021

by Gillian Grozier (KGL Publishing, 2018)

In less than fifty pages, Gillian Grozier matter-of-factly narrates her amazing life, beginning with her childhood in England during and after the Second World War and ending as her ninth decade begins in Frederick, Maryland, just twenty miles from where I sit blogging at my dining room table in Gaithersburg! In between, she manages to navigate two marriages, three children, alcoholism, and a plethora of careers that exhausted this reader. A writer, poet, journalist, and artist, Gillian has had so many jobs and careers that I lost count. She went through very tough times, but she has always landed on her feet eventually. She experienced both want and prosperity; she used the prosperity to travel to some really amazing destinations (China, Tibet, Indonesia, Turkey…). And she experienced both the sexism of the fifties and sixties and the relative liberation of the present.

The stages of her life are organized according to the luggage she used at the time–an ingenious and different way to divide up the many periods she lived through.

I am very much looking forward to meeting Gillian, both virtually and, when circumstances allow, in person.

Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Pandemic Lockdown, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey Across the United States

Posted by nliakos on February 28, 2021

by David Goodrich (Pegasus Books, 2017)

I love walking/cycling memoirs. I’ve never done any distance walking or cycling, not even one day, and I suspect that I would thoroughly hate it, but I really enjoy reading about others’ journeys, and this is just such a memoir. In 2011, recently retired climate scientist David Goodrich loaded up his touring bike with all manner of gear (clothing, food, camping equipment, laptop, tools and spare parts, water…) and set off for the Oregon coast from his Maryland home. I can’t imagine riding a bike from Gaithersburg to Rockville! But Goodrich is one serious biker.

He’s also serious about climate change, and one of his goals on the ride was to talk to people about it–something he found surprisingly difficult to do, because most people didn’t want to talk about it–perhaps because that would require acknowledging it in a way they had not done. He did do some invited talks to school groups until the school year ended, and found young people more receptive. He records the evidence of climate change he found along his journey, such as the trees killed by pine bark beetles, changing the forest from living green to dead gray… depressing. The book is a way to communicate the awful truth of what we are doing to the planet, at least to those who are willing to listen (or in this case, read).

The book is set up chronologically going westward, sort of. I say sort of because the 2011 Trans America ride was preceded by a partial ride through the fire district in 2000 and followed by a trip around Glacier National Park in 2016. Goodrich inserts anecdotes from those two rides into his account of the cross-continental ride which is the main focus of the book, which is a little confusing but ultimately doesn’t reallymatter.

He includes stories about the people he meets or reconnects with along the way, as well as encounters with dogs, truckers, hills, switchbacks, rainstorms, and the incredible wind he rode into as he crossed the Great Plains, the source of the book’s title. He recounts some of the history of the places he visits, like Stronghold Table on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the Lakota gathered before the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, where U.S. government troops slaughtered the indigenous people who had surrendered to them. The story of Stronghold, Wounded Knee, Sitting Bull, Short Bull, Wovoka and the Ghost Dancers, is really distressing to read. How Americans can be so smug about “all men are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all”, I don’t know.

Goodrich tends to skip lightly over the physical suffering I am sure he had to endure. He mentions sore knees, spills that resulted in scrapes and bruises, brushes with dehydration, but ultimately makes it all sound not so bad. The parts about history and climate change are sobering; the memoir of a really amazing accomplishment for someone of any age is engrossing.

P.S. If I remember correctly, I met David Goodrich about a year ago at a Climate Action Lobby Night in Annapolis. We spoke about his book, and I added it to my To Read list. I finished the book on the last day of the 2021 Climate Action Lobby Week, during which I joined climate activists from around the state to advocate for the Climate Solutions Now Act, the Consideration of Climate and Labor Act, the Transit Safety Investment Act, and a bill allowing Community Choice Energy in Montgomery County, where I live. Maybe Dave took part in the virtual lobbying this year too. Maybe we will meet up in Annapolis again next year; who knows?

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Bella Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall 1818 – 1820 (Poldark Series #12)

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2021

by Winston Graham (2002)

I did it! I have read all twelve Poldark novels. I posted about the first one, Ross Poldark, almost exactly one year ago, on February 4, 2020 (Vicki and I were still watching the TV series in reruns) and have slowly read them all, interspersed with more serious fare, over the past year and throughout the pandemic lockdown.

The last in the series consists of five books. Graham is clearly trying to tie up all the loose ends with this book, but it is also different from the previous eleven novels because it is part murder mystery/thriller. There is a serial killer on the loose in 19th-century Cornwall. The first murder is that of Mary Polmesk, a maid at the Warleggan residence of Cardew; it occurs in Book One (Valentine), Chapter 9. The second, in Book Two (Agneta), is that of Agneta Treneglos, the mentally handicapped daughter of one of the Poldarks’ neighbors, who happens to be having an ill-considered affair with Valentine, who immediately comes under suspicion. Also, in Book Two, Chapter 9, Demelza is walking home at night when she hears someone following her. She calls out, but the only response is silence and the smell of cigar smoke. Not really wanting to believe herself in danger, she nevertheless runs to the mine and asks for an escort home. Then in Book Three (Maurice), Chapter 5, an attempt is made on the life of miner’s daughter Jane Heligan, who fights back and manages to escape. At this point, my suspicions centered on Captain Philip Prideaux, one of Clowance’s two suitors. Captain Prideaux is known to have killed a person during a mental breakdown following the Battle of Waterloo; he still struggles with bouts of rage. Also, like Valentine, he fits what descriptions we have of the killer. But in Book Five (Bella), we discover who the killer really is, as he terrorizes Demelza in her own parlor. No spoiler, other than that help arrives in time. So that whole plot thread is totally different from anything we have seen before in the series.

Other than the serial killer thread, we have, in Book One (Valentine): Valentine’s deteriorating marriage to Selena Pope, his sordid affair with the mentally handicapped Agneta Treneglos, and sixteen-year-old Bella’s plan to go to London to study voice, motivated by her own irrepressible love of singing and the encouragement of her boyfriend, Christopher Havergal. At a theatrical performance, Clowance sees Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, who had proposed marriage to her when she was still single; she had turned him down in favor of Stephen Carrington, but he seems to be still very interested in her.

In Book Two (Agneta), Valentine has tired of Agneta and wants to be rid of her, but she refuses to be put off, showing up at inconvenient times at Place House, where he lives with his increasingly jealous and angry wife, who takes their toddler son, Georgie to live apart. Valentine adopts a baby ape (either a gorilla or a chimpanzee; it’s never really clear to me), which he names Butto. Agneta runs away from home and is later found murdered. Meanwhile, Capt. Prideaux visits Clowance, who is grappling with ambivalent feelings about her dead husband. We find out that Christopher Havergal has a drinking problem, and Maurice Valery, conductor of a small theater in Rouen, urges Bella to go to France to sing in a brand-new opera by Mr. Rossini, The Barber of Seville.

In Book Three (Maurice), Philip Prideaux proposes marriage to Clowance, but she can’t make up her mind. George Warleggan falls into an abandoned mineshaft and almost dies; he will spend much of the remainder of the book out of action. Bella and Christopher have a falling-out over his consorting with prostitutes. He has to leave London for work, and Bella takes this opportunity to go to Rouen with Maurice, slipping out of Mrs. Pelham’s (Caroline Enys’ aunt, who has lodged her and taken care of her in London) house and falsely reassuring her parents that she will be well-chaperoned and that others in her London troupe will be with her. Bad girl!

Still, Bella’s operatic debut is a huge success in Book Four, and she lets herself be seduced by Maurice. Two days later, Ross shows up unannounced to see her perform and is suitably impressed, but takes her home when the run is over. Maurice declares to Ross that he loves Bella and would like to marry her, to which Ross replies that he encourages all of his children to choose their own partners. (I wonder: just how unusual was this at the time?) On the way, Bella’s throat begins to be sore; this turns out to be diphtheria, the dreaded disease that killed the Poldarks’ first-born child, Julia, and almost killed Demelza herself. Bella survives, but her voice (her “instrument”) appears to be permanently changed. Clowance makes her decision and weds Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, whose suit she rejected earlier in favor of Steven Carrington. Edward is such a nice person that I think every reader probably cheers for him; at the same time, we all (including Clowance) feel bad for Philip Prideaux, the loser in this case. Graham suggests that Prideaux might find happiness with Jeremy’s widow, Cuby, but does not resolve that particular issue, leaving it to the reader to decide.

In Book Five, Maurice and Christopher fight over Bella. The killer stalks Demelza, who is rescued. Valentine kidnaps his toddler son Georgie from the house where his estranged wife is living. While she is gone, Place House has become a den of gambling, drinking, and sex; Butto, now apparently full-grown and potentially dangerous, is kept under the house in a kind of cellar. In a climactic scene, Selena returns with George and a few others to demand that Valentine give Georgie back; Ross, invited by Valentine, also shows up. Butto, bored and lonely, breaks out of his prison and accidentally starts a fire. Valentine rescues Georgie and all the people in the house move to safety, but he goes back to find Butto; Ross, unsurprisingly and completely in character, follows him in to save him. One survives, but the other does not. Bella’s ruined singing career is replaced by a theatrical one, as she understudies the role of Juliet in a knock-off production of Shakespeare’s play and then ends up taking the place of Romeo, to great acclaim.

I may have gotten confused as to what happened in which book. As you can see, there was a lot going on. Kind of like a three-ring circus.

I feel both relieved and disappointed to have finally reached the end of the Poldark saga. It was educational; I learned a lot I didn’t know about life, mining, and politics in Britain in the late 18th and early19th centuries, as well as about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the invention of the steam engine, and much more. I followed the ups and downs, tragedies and triumphs of the Poldark family, especially Ross and Demelza, as I came to know and love them as more than just characters in a story. I cannot say whether their struggles and joys were typical of the time, but why not? Technology changes, politics changes, cultures change, but people are just people, no matter when or where they live.

The twelve Poldark novels, in order, with links to my blog posts:

  1. Ross Poldark (1945)
  2. Demelza (1946)
  3. Jeremy Poldark (1950)
  4. Warleggan (1953)
  5. The Black Moon (1973)
  6. The Four Swans (1976)
  7. The Angry Tide (1978)
  8. The Stranger from the Sea (1981)
  9. The Miller’s Dance (1982)
  10. The Loving Cup (1984)
  11. The Twisted Sword (1990)
  12. Bella Poldark (2002)

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The Twisted Sword: A Novel of Cornwall, 1815 (Poldark Series #11)

Posted by nliakos on February 7, 2021

by Winston Graham (1990)

The penultimate novel in the Poldark series may be the longest yet–about 1000 pages, according to my e-Reader. I finished the last two books in a marathon session yesterday, unable to tear myself away. The novel begins when Ross and his family (Demelza, Isabella-Rose, Henry/Harry and Mrs. Kemp) travel to Paris where Ross is to observe the political/military situation for the British Prime Minister. It’s a first trip out of England for everyone but Ross, and they are quite excited. They take an apartment in Paris, meet some people, and make some friends, as they await the arrival of the Enyses and of Jeremy and his bride Cuby, who plan to join them in Paris for the Easter holidays. But everything falls apart when Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated and imprisoned on Elba, an island in the Tuscan archipelago, escapes and manages to return to France, where the entire army capitulates to him without a shot being fired. Suddenly, France is not as safe as it seemed. Ross is captured while visiting a friend in the army; Demelza manages to flee Paris with the family and Mrs Kemp, traveling with Mlle de la Blache, a Royalist friend who has served as a spy for Louis XVIII and must not fall into Napoleon’s hands. She returns to London, where she sends the rest of the family home to Cornwall and waits for news of Ross.

SPOILER ALERT: Ross eventually escapes and after pausing to help Wellington defeat Napoleon at Waterloo (where expectant father Jeremy dies in his arms, a hero), he returns to Nampara, where he and Demelza grieve the loss of Jeremy. Meanwhile, Clowance and Stephen are living in Penryn. Stephen’s little shipping business is prospering, until George Warleggan, rightly suspecting that Stephen had a hand in the robbery of the stage coach two books back, decides to destroy him; but he is foiled by his wife Harriet, who is friendly with Clowance. Stephen returns to his privateering activities and manages a very successful raid in which he captures a French sloop loaded with valuable cargo, and for five minutes all his and Clowance’s dreams are back on. But Stephen is seriously injured in a riding accident, leaving Clowance a widow.

Isabella-Rose, at thirteen a very precocious young lady, becomes enamoured of Christopher Havergal, a young British nobleman whom she meets in France. He goes so far as to ask Demelza to allow Bella to be betrothed to him, which she refuses, due to Ross’s absence and Bella’s age. Havergal loses a foot at Waterloo, but I predict he will be back and not so easily deterred in the next and last novel, Bella Poldark.

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The Loving Cup: A Novel of Cornwall, 1813-1815 (Poldark series #10)

Posted by nliakos on January 28, 2021

by Winston Graham (Pan Books 2019; original pub. date 1984)

The Loving Cup continues the story of the romances, aspirations, rejections, and suffering of the younger generation: the older sons and daughters of the original cast of characters: Ross and Demelza’s son and daughter Jeremy and Clowance Poldark; Francis and Elizabeth’s son Geoffrey Charles Poldark; George (actually Ross, but nobody knows that so far) and Elizabeth’s son Valentine Warleggan; Andrew and Verity Poldark Blamey’s son Andrew, to a lesser extent.

I would say the main thread in this installment is Jeremy, who try as he might cannot get over his passion for Cuby Trevanion. He joins the army (still fighting Napoleon in Europe) and takes up with a Belgian woman, but it is all for naught; he cannot forget Cuby, and Cuby is promised to Valentine–a deal struck between George, who would like to see his son set up in the aristocratic Trevanions’ modern castle, and Cuby’s perpetually indebted brother, who is apparently a gambling addict. The fact that Cuby is willing to marry the highest bidder in order to keep the castle in the family does not change Jeremy’s feelings for her, even though he knows that it ought to. SPOILER ALERT: This is going to end well. Valentine has his own ideas about whom he wishes to marry, and it isn’t Cuby. When Ross and Demelza encourage Jeremy to give it one last shot, he does, and Cuby somewhat belatedly realizes that she does, in fact, love Jeremy.

Like her brother, Clowance is faithful to her first love, Stephen Carrington, who is back in the picture. Having broken up with Stephen and kept him at bay for many months, she reverses course and decides to marry him, despite being aware of his many faults. Ross and Demelza (the most modern of modern parents!) refuse to try to influence her choice, even though they have serious misgivings about Stephen’s unreliability and impetuousness. After the wedding, the couple take up residence in Penryn, near the Blameys; Stephen is attempting to make a more or less honest living through shipping. In the meantime George Warleggan has been investigating the coach robbery and suspects both Stephen and Jeremy of having had a hand in it. He takes advantage of Stephen’s opening an account with the Warleggan bank to suggest that Stephen borrow a large amount of money from the bank to finance the purchase of a ship. Lending money is George’s way of gaining control over people, so I expect this transaction will come back to haunt Stephen and Clowance in one of the two remaining installments.

Finally, Geoffrey Charles returns from fighting the French with a beautiful, rich young Spanish bride. They come to Cornwall and set about reclaiming Trenwith, which George abandoned to the awful Harry brothers after Elizabeth’s parents passed away. Then he returns to the front, leaving the pregnant Amadora with her parents in Spain. Not wishing to fight in the American war, he resigns his commission, so I guess we can expect this little family to return to Trenwith in the coming installments.

There are a few new characters: Selena Pope, the beautiful young wife, then widow, of a wealthy old man; a young doctor interested in steam engines with the improbable name of Goldsworthy Gurney; and a whole host of other characters that I forget, as well as the upcoming younger children of Ross and Demelza, Caroline and Dwight, Verity and Andrew, and Drake and Morwenna. Isabella-Rose Poldark, aka Bella, has her own book, the final one; here, she is an impulsive eleven-year-old.

The title refers to a small silver cup that was among the items stolen in the coach robbery. It ends up on Demelza’s mantel, but Jeremy suggests that she not display it. This could conceivably end badly, if the cup is displayed and recognized by the wrong person. To be continued… I have already borrowed The Twisted Sword, No. 11 in the twelve-part series of Novels of Cornwall.

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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2021

by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House 2020)

Isabel Wilkerson lays out a convincing case for an American caste system based on race. Of the numerous caste systems in the world, she compares the American one to two others: the well-known caste system of India and that of Nazi Germany. Caste, “a stubbornly fixed ranking of human value,” is determined according to different factors in different systems. Our American caste system uses various physical attributes (skin color, hair texture, facial features…) to identify and mark members of our subordinate caste–African-Americans, the U.S. equivalent of India’s Dalit (“Untouchables”). Succeeding waves of immigrants, facing discrimination from those already here, have learned quickly to distance themselves from the subordinate caste so as to avoid their inescapable fate of poverty and powerlessness.

Wilkerson distinguishes between racism and casteism as follows: Racism is “an act or institution that mocks, harms, assumes or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race,” whereas casteism is “an act or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category.” (pg. 70) She points out that racism and casteism frequently, but not always, occur together.

Wilkerson lists Eight Pillars of Caste: (1) Divine will and the laws of nature, (2) Heritability, (3) Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating, (4) Purity versus pollution, (5) Occupational Hierarchy, (6) Dehumanization and stigma, (7) Terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control, and (8) Inherent Superiority versus inherent inferiority. She devotes a chapter to each.

For me, one of the most difficult chapters to read was Chapter Eight, “The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste.” In this chapter, Wilkerson tells how when the Nazis were creating the Third Reich, they came to the American South to learn from the Jim Crow laws there. Wilkerson writes: “The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.” (pg. 81) The fact that some of the laws “went overboard” in the opinion of the Nazis is chilling. The chapter also describes how Hitler seized power: “Hitler had risen as an outside agitator, a cult figure enamored of pageantry and rallies. . . . [He] saw himself as the voice of the Volk, of their grievances and fears, especially those in the rural districts, as a god-chosen savior, running on instinct. He had never held elective office before.” (pg. 82) Sound familiar?

The following chapter, “The Evil of Silence,” was also unbearable reading, with its graphic descriptions of lynchings and the bloodthirstiness of the crowds that gathered to witness them and sent picture postcards of the dead victims to their friends. Truly, this is Evil.

Wilkerson reminds us that race is not real. We are all members of the same race, the human race. Race as we think of it today was created as a way to justify the enslavement of Africans. Europeans from various countries never thought of themselves of white before they came to America (they were Hungarians or Portuguese or Dutch), and Africans today do not see themselves as black (they are Yoruba, Igbo, or San). We created this monster, and Wilkerson challenges us to dismantle the system that keeps some people on the lowest rung of our societal ladder, while elevating others. In the Epilogue, she challenges us to refuse to acquiesce to the system; to develop radical empathy for those in the subordinate caste, by educating ourselves and by listening with humility to the experiences of others. She writes, “The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly” (pg. 386), and predicts that “a world without caste would set everyone free.” (pg. 388)

The book is not hard to read (except emotionally). The language is clear, the chapters short and there are plenty of real-world examples, including the author’s own experiences navigating the caste system here and abroad.

Wilkerson’s previous book was The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration of formerly enslaved people to the northern states. I have heard that it is also excellent, and have placed a hold on it with Libby. I should get it in about 3 months. It’s a good thing that Wilkerson’s books are in such demand. We (especially white people) need to read them.

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The Miller’s Dance: A Novel of Cornwall, 1812-1813 (Poldark series #9)

Posted by nliakos on December 25, 2020

by Winston Graham (Pan McMillan 2008)

The ninth novel in Graham’s saga of the Poldarks of Nampara begins with Ross and Demelza’s independent-minded 17-year-old daughter Clowance torn between accepting Stephen Carrington’s (The Stranger from the Sea) advances and proposal of marriage and keeping their mutual infatuation a secret; her brother Jeremy is deeply involved in the reopening of Wheal Leisure with steam power, but he is mourning his rejection by Cuby Trevanion. The main characters from the first seven novels–Ross, Demelza, George, Dwight, Caroline–are aging, but you would never know that from the photos of the actors that played them in the TV series that grace the book jackets! I keep going, but I sense that Graham has kind of lost his story line.

The whole book is really about the trials and tribulations and romantic escapades of Clowance and Jeremy, with asides into the Napoleonic Wars (Buonaparte finally gets his during the brutal Russian winter), English politics (Ross declines to run again for Parliament but in the end is persuaded to do it), a fourth child for Ross and Demelza, the discovery of an old mine, the construction of steam-powered mining equipment, and a harebrained scheme to rob a coach which Jeremy, Steven, and Paul actually pull off–but I sense it may come back to haunt them in a subsequent installment.

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Olive Kitteridge

Posted by nliakos on December 14, 2020

by Elizabeth Strout (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2008)

The eponymous Olive, a retired schoolteacher in a small town in Maine, features in all of the stories in this collection, but not always as the main character. Elizabeth Strout explains in an interview at the end of the book that she thought readers might need a break from Olive, whom she describes as “ferocious and complicated and kindly and sometimes cruel”; she wanted her readers to see Olive from the perspective of the townspeople. So sometimes Olive permeates a story, while at other times she barely gets a mention. But the book moves along as the years pass, and Olive’s son Christopher gets married and moves to California, gets divorced and relocates to New York, remarries and has a child. Olive’s long-suffering husband, Henry, suffers a stroke, and she has to place him in a nursing home, where he eventually passes away, leaving Olive feeling lonelier than she had ever imagined she could be. But she is given another chance at a kind of happiness in the final story.

I’m not much of a fan of short stories. I started reading this collection way back before Alexander Hamilton and picked it up between books over the past few months, finishing the last two or three stories after Too Much and Never Enough. It was not compelling, but I did enjoy it, certain stories more than others. Looking back, I can’t remember who is who anymore, except for Olive herself, who would be hard to forget. I understand there is a sequel.

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