Books, February 2019

I don’t purposely read multiple installments from a series in a month so I only write about it once… but I also don’t not do that.

Featured book of the month:March, Books 1-3, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Before John Lewis was a US Representative, he was one of the most prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement from its very beginning. Along with his congressional aide (and comics fan) Aydin and artist Powell, he has created the only autobiography I think I have ever enjoyed. Part 1 covers his childhood and rise into the early leadership of the movement, Part 2 focuses on the increasingly horrifying violence against the protestors in 1962-1963, and Part 3 chronicles the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the continuing violence and segregation, and Lewis’s first steps into politics. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality Lewis and others faced. You never forget that they could be – and were – killed. It shows his leadership in the face of impossible choices, but doesn’t gloss over his regrets and missteps.

The way schools teach the Civil Rights era and its members’ experience, and the way we talk about it in the news and historical conversations, makes it far too easy to imagine it all happened in the distant and irrelevant past. (It also disconnects the Freedom Ride-era activists from today’s efforts.) In reality, the passage of the Civil Rights Act is within the lifetime of nearly 1/5 of the US population (Table 2), and the passage of the bill was far from a total fix. This should be on every US history teacher’s reading list for teaching the 60s, for themselves and for their students. It’s innovative, thoughtful, beautifully illustrated, and does not let you forget the deadly stakes of their activism, not for a moment.

Subject: history, politics. Format: graphica. Rating: 3/3

The Cathedral of the Sea, Ildefonso Falcones, transl. Nick Caistor from Spanish

This was a beautifully written read. I also can’t remember the last time I read a book that treated its women characters so poorly, which made it hard to enjoy the high quality of the prose (and props not only to the author but also the translator for that). The women in this sprawling story are uniformly treated as variations on scheming, immoral, greedy objects who are obsessed with the protagonist Arnau. Arnau sees his wives (and prospective wives) as obstacles or prizes. They are abandoned, assaulted, executed, and discarded unless they become useful to the story again. The Jewish and Moorish characters (almost all male) numbered fewer but fared no better, just with different poor treatment. The claim in the author’s note at the end – though I’m sure it’s meant sincerely – that the treatment of the women, the Jewish community, and people of color was just how things were back then and not a reflection of the views of the author does not excuse any of it. There are ways to write historical fiction that don’t perpetuate the dehumanizing and oppressive views of the past.

Again, the writing was fantastic. The setting was immersive and the journey of the protagonist engaging, and I fully understand why it was recommended to me on those grounds. But I just couldn’t get past the fact that the women and minorities have all the agency and dignity of cardboard cutouts. I was so frustrated by the contrast between the high quality of the writing and the poor treatment of the characters that I actually revisited my rating system, because my original rating of 2/3 didn’t feel right. I have been struggling with grade inflation for a while and took this opportunity to recenter the curve. My nominal rating has been 3/2/1 love/like/leave, but I haven’t awarded a 1 in a long while since I had been holding that for books I genuinely disliked – and I do a very good job screening books, so I almost never get to that point. Heck, I didn’t dislike this! I’m really glad I read it – I just found it frustrating. Therefore, I am introducing 0 for books I really dislike, and shifting 1 to “liked but wouldn’t recommend,” 2 to “liked and would recommend,” and 3 stays at “love it.”

Genre: character study. Setting: history realism. Format: novel. Rating: 1/3, would have been 2/3 before recentering

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s