Review: Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter, Josephine Brown

Most American students are familiar with the genre of slave narrative. We’ve all at some point been assigned autobiographies such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. These books are the product of a peculiar class of African-Americans, fugitive, yet often famous, risen from ashes to become leaders in the most pivotal movement in American history.

The contents of these books tend to follow similar structures: the horrors of slavery, the moment of enlightenment and desire for freedom, the failed attempt, the daring escape, the perilous journey, and the struggle to establish oneself afterward. Among the pages is usually chronicled the method by which the former slave learned to read, and pleas to the reader against slavery in the name of reason or religion punctuate it all.

There’s a disparity, though.

Writers like Frederick Douglass or the subject of this biography, William Wells Brown, became respected intellectuals in their time. Female authors like Harriet Jacobs or Harriet Wilson, who wrote Our Nig about her indentured servitude in the North, received no such accolades. The most prominent female abolitionist author was always Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman. Even famed poet Phillis Wheatley died in poverty. The pre-emancipation manuscripts we have that are written by black women have largely been dug up by historians over one hundred years later.

Harriet Jacobs wasn’t confirmed as author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl until many years after her death.

The same problem exists for the writings of black men, of course. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was also lost to history for a time. Still, the lives and work of black female authors have been systematically devalued to an even greater extent, and during the time of slavery, there was little hope for them to achieve similar literary success to their male counterparts.

Josephine Brown didn’t write in order to get credit for it, that much is clear. At the beginning of the books, she clearly states that the reason for her publishing this biography is that her father’s autobiography was out of print at the time. What follows is a staid, no-frills biography that one would scarcely believe was written by Mr. Brown’s daughter, were it not stated in the title. She takes excerpts from her father’s writings and from critics of his work, transcribing paragraphs at a time without hesitation. Her concern is not literary quality, but rather historical documentation.

Her most egregious fumbling with words takes place in the first chapter, where her hyperbole is particularly effusive. “A finer situation for a farm could scarcely have been selected in any part of the country,” she writes. “…Distinguished for her strength both of body and mind, and a woman of great courage, Elizabeth was considered one of the most valuable slaves on the place. Although Dr. Young was not thought to be the hardest of masters, he nevertheless employed, as an overseer, a man whose acts of atrocity could scarcely have been surpassed in any of the slave States.”

She does include occasional anecdotes, some more believable than others. The story of her father arguing his fare with a white train conductor, for example, seems like it ought to have gotten him arrested rather than a clean moral victory. The tales of his setting up shop as first a barber, then a banker, are similarly lively, but somewhat less outrageous. She also injects a certain amount of family pride into the narrative when she lists the various elites with whom her father hobnobbed in Europe as well as excerpts of glowing reviews of his books.

Brown is not the most engaging writer, but she knows this, and so she keeps her narrative short and to the point, sparing the reader most poor attempts at flourishes. This is a woman who wrote out of necessity, not wanting her father’s efforts to be forgotten, and for that, I admire her.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in African-American history or in slave narratives. It’s a dry but not terrible read that provides valuable historical information.

Rating: 2/5 Stars.

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Review: Eye by Marianne Micros

I was provided a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I suppose you could say the cover of this book… caught my eye. After reading it, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Eye is a loosely thematic collection of short stories that mostly center around, you guessed it, the eye. About as strong is the focus on Greece: its myths, its history, and its superstitions, most prominently the “evil eye.” The author is a retired English professor of Greek heritage, and both of these facts come through in her writing.

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The first half of the book includes stories that take place on various Greek islands, most of them about the evil eye, the advent of modernity in rural Greece, or both. The similarities between the stories make them tend to run together, especially when the same handful of names is recycled across stories. It’s unclear whether the author intended some characters to be present in different stories or if she simply wanted to emphasize how common these names are.

With so many stories in similar settings with similar topics, it becomes clear that some are weaker than others, less fleshed out, scraps that could easily have been excised from the collection. “No Man” is a decent introduction to the concept of the evil eye, so I understand why Micros chose to place it at the beginning, but as a story, it falls flat compared to the eerie tone that was likely intended. “The Midwife” and “Thirteen” are likewise unimpressive, and “Paved” is just difficult to read.

Here is where I may have a difference in opinion with someone with an M.F.A. Most notably with “Paved,” but also in some of the other stories, Micros uses experimental, semi-poetic formatting. Her previous publications have been mainly poetry. While I do enjoy poetry, I have limited patience for experimental formatting in prose or prose-like works unless it is done exceptionally well. In my view, Micros uses tired textual tricks that do little to enhance the stories and simply make them less accessible. If this sort of thing is your bread and butter, though, you may find it more interesting than I did.

Out of the swath of stories about traditional Greek life, the title story “Eye” is the most complex and complete, and it forms a clear nucleus to the other works in this section of the text. “The Sacrifice” and “The Secret Temple” also have some freshness to them, although they still aren’t top-tier.

The second half of the collection branches out into more diverse topics, both more fantastical and more realistic than the first. “One Hundred Eyes” takes something of a risk with perspective by telling the tale of Io, who was turned into a cow, in the first person, but ultimately not much is added to the myth with this retelling. “The Cave of Lust” is the most bizarre of the collection and leaves the reader with some food for thought. It is based on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which I have not read, and so I do not know how the original might inform the impression of someone who has read it. “The Changeling’s Brother” has a decent but predictable twist.

Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io by Pieter Lastman.

The strongest of the collection are “The Minotaur” and “The Birthday Gift.” “The Minotaur” has a unique protagonist and concept, and my only complaint is that the metaphor involved is a bit too ham-fisted. “The Birthday Gift” is a curious, insightful comment on the nature of superstition.

The final story, “The Invention of Pantyhose: An Autobiography” is another dive into the word salad-y prose that I disliked in “Paved,” which is a shame, because there is some good content in there.

So, what’s the verdict? These stories aren’t poorly written, exactly, not even the ones with disagreeable formatting. They are structurally sound, as meticulously pruned as one might expect the words of an English professor to be. In terms of content, though, many of the stories suffer from unbearable homogeneity, and that extends to the voices of the characters as well. Each of the first-person narratives reads the exact same way, which defeats the purpose of first-person perspective. I would like the author to have examined a bit more closely who each of her characters are and try to express that through their narrations.

This book is not my cup of tea, but if you are particularly interested in Greek culture or enjoy a poetic, university English department-approved style of writing, it might be for you.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

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Review: The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

But we wonder, proceeded the Spirits, that you desire to be Empress of a Terrestrial World, when as you can create your self a Cœlestial World if you please. What, said the Empress, can any Mortal be a Creator? Yes, answered the Spirits; for every human Creature can create an Immaterial World fully inhabited by Immaterial Creatures, and populous of Immaterial subjects, such as we are…

I asked my cousin if she knew any older classics written by women. Having read it for a college class, she came up with The Blazing World, saying, “it’s pretty wild.”

That’s an understatement.

It’s tempting to try to market this book as a “first.” First sci-fi novel, first utopian fiction by a woman, even first Mary Sue are some titles I’ve seen bandied about. I think that’s because it’s easier than trying to describe the actual story, which, as stated, is wild.

In short, a woman gets kidnapped by a man who wants to marry her, but a storm kills her captors, and she drifts to another world, the Blazing World, that can only be reached through the North Pole. She quickly becomes Empress, does some science, makes friends, and eventually goes back home to take over the world. Simple stuff, you know?

The story can be a bit hard to get to. The language is archaic and littered with run-ons. The Blazing World was published sometime between Shakespeare and Gulliver’s Travels, and if you’ve read the latter, you’ve got a solid idea of how readable the prose is.

Another similarity with Gulliver’s Travels is the plethora of references to contemporary science and politics– in this work, more science than politics. This is because it functions as a companion to Cavendish’s scientific work, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. To be clear, her grasp of science is about as strong as that of any educated person in the 1600s, which is to say, laughably poor in the eyes of a modern reader. That being said, given the information available at the time, Cavendish’s arguments are lively and fairly reasonable. A large portion of the novel consists of exposition in the form of extremely detailed world-building, which is where she lays out most of her philosophical and scientific ideas.

It’s really a testament to the human imagination that Cavendish creates a world that is so absurd, yet so internally consistent. She puts many modern fantasy writers to shame in terms of sheer creativity, nothing like the recycled fairy tales and faux-medieval settings that have crowded the landscape. In this sense, The Blazing World is a sci-fi novel: it looks toward the future rather than the past. It’s concerned with innovation and possibility.

Does Cavendish have a flair for intricate plots and surprise twists? Not at all. She is bullishly straightforward, and this is what gives the book its “Mary Sue” flair. The main character becomes the Empress of the Blazing World right out of the gate, and she is beautiful, intelligent, and powerful beyond reason. Like a child playing pretend or a 7th grader writing her first fanfiction, Cavendish gives the Empress everything she could want and more, describing her bejeweled outfits and chariots in excruciating detail.

Interestingly, the Emperor who the Empress marries to gain her title plays very little role in the story. Instead, the two principal characters are the Empress and her best friend, the Duchess of Newcastle. …Wait a moment. The Duchess of Newcastle? Wasn’t Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle? Yes, Cavendish did the self-insert hundreds of years before it became a fanfiction trope. She also centered her narrative around female friendship, or “Platonick Lovers,” rather than romance, which is pretty rad.

In the end, the beauty of this book is in the nature of the Blazing World itself, and the text repeatedly reminds the reader that we, too, can create and rule worlds that belong only to ourselves just by imagining it.

From a literary perspective, The Blazing World is a hot mess. From a historical perspective, it is a funky, ostentatious, and beautiful relic of a woman who had the means to be bold, educated, and creative way back in the 1660s. I recommend it to anyone with a curiosity about the history of women in fiction, or anyone who didn’t want to bash their head in after reading Gulliver’s Travels.

Rating: 2/5 stars.

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