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.

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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.

Buy Biography of an American Bondman here!

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Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm is apparently one of those pieces of popular culture that is common knowledge… if you’re from the U.K. Personally, I hadn’t heard of it until this year. I’m glad that I did, though, because it’s possibly the funniest book that I’ve read in my life.

The cover of the edition I have seems like a mysterious contradiction to a person not already aware of the contents of the book. It has the standard staid cover design of the Penguin Classics series, but the image chosen to represent the personality of the novel is a goofy-looking cow with its nose pressed into the camera. Even though there are great works of comedy in the canon, the expectation remains for “classic” literature to be serious literature. Cold Comfort Farm is delightfully un-serious.

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Here’s the premise: Flora Poste, a bright, sensible young woman, moves out to the country to live with a pack of gloomy relatives who think they’re cursed, then solves their problems for them with practical common sense (with the help of her personal guidebook, The Higher Common Sense.)

It’s a parody of British rural melodrama, a genre that I have never read, but as I sank into the book, I found that many of the archetypes involved are more familiar than I expected. There’s Flora Poste, the plucky heroine, Seth, the town player and family favorite, Reuben, the disparaged heir, Amos, the old religious crank, Judith, the gloomy aunt wracked with guilt, and so on. The core of it all is, of course, the crazy old head of the family, Aunt Ada Doom, never the same after the traumatic events of her childhood. What happened to her? She saw something nasty in the woodshed. What did she see? No one knows, but it sure was nasty. Unspeakable, one might say.

While I may not be directly familiar with the works parodied in the novel, I found plenty of literary background to contextualize it for me. There are numerous references to the Brontë sisters, and certain elements of the plot and characters have a hint of Austen in them as well.  Amos, for example, calls to mind the servant Joseph in Wuthering Heights with his talk of hellfire and damnation, and Mrs. Beetle somewhat resembles Nelly. Furthermore, the wild child Elfine has parallels to Cathy Linton with her tendency to roam in the fields and her forbidden love. Aunt Ada Doom recalls Jane Eyre with her role of mad recluse. And, of course, the odious Mr. Mybug, who is a Brontë conspiracy theorist, could easily pass for a rejected suitor from an Austen novel.

Although the book is derivative in nature and full of humorous references, it stands on its own even without that context. Stella Gibbons is just plain funny. She fills her pages with intentionally purple prose, marking her personal favorite passages with asterisks. In another life, she would be a shoo-in for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

As the plot progresses, Flora strips away the veneers of gloom and doom from each of the characters, revealing them to be regular people in most cases, or at the very least a manageable sort of odd. The catch is that Flora herself is not an entirely normal person. She’s more like some kind of deranged Mary Poppins, a fact that brings the farce to a whole other level.

The whole book seems written for the screen, and there is apparently a much-loved film adaptation that I intend to watch as soon as possible.

Cold Comfort Farm is designed to make you laugh, and it undoubtedly achieves that aim. The entire time that I was reading it, I kept pausing to read funny lines out loud to my friend. I’m in the habit of being a bit obnoxious that way, but my friend laughed, too, so you can rest assured that the book really is that quotable.

I don’t have any complaints about this book. If there’s anything, it’s simply that beyond the humor, there is little else to it. I think that what separates a good comedy from a great one is the ability to treat a serious subject. By joking about the serious things, we can relieve some of the pressure and come at them from new angles. In Cold Comfort Farm, there is no real substance. At the same time, this book wasn’t meant to be substantial, so all is well.

Cold Comfort Farm is a light-hearted read with universal appeal. I especially recommend it to both fans and haters of Wuthering Heights, the Brontë sisters, and Austen.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Buy Cold Comfort Farm here!

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The 10 Best Books I’ve Read In 2018 (So Far)

I’ve read 28 books so far this year, and in the process of creating this list, I’ve found that, on the whole, the books I’ve picked out have been extremely good ones. I thought about ranking them. I then realized that I am too weak of a person to put these books in any kind of order. So, in no particular order, here are my ten favorite books I’ve read in 2018 (so far).

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O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

This is the story of a woman named Alexandra Bergson, a daughter of Swedish immigrants who becomes a successful farmer on the Nebraskan prairie. Alexandra is a unique sort of strong female character. Physically and mentally, she is capable of overcoming any obstacle in her way, but the challenges she faces are not of that nature. Rather, she suffers emotional pain due to problems with family, romance, and society. I enjoyed the social questions explored in this novel as well as the spare and elegant prose, which perfectly matches the setting of the harsh, lonely prairie. I was also caught off guard by the twist ending.

You can buy it here!

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Edna, a wealthy housewife from Louisiana, begins to chafe in her role of wife and mother, and slowly gives into the temptation of running away from it all. There’s a plot here, a slow, oozing progression, but more important than the building of action is the building of emotion that rises to a fever pitch by the end. I was taken in by the novel’s atmospheric description and by Edna’s inner struggle.

You can buy it here!

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A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

This book is not a novel, but rather a reworked version of a speech Woolf gave on the topic of women in fiction. While I consider myself well-educated in women’s rights, Woolf’s insights in this text were a revelation to me. Her writing style is compelling, and her arguments are even more so. I don’t quite agree with them point for point, but at the heart of the book are truths about gender politics and womanhood that I have felt for a long time, but didn’t know how to express. It’s an essential feminist text.

You can buy it here!

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Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran

Tran chronicles the true story of his family’s flight from Vietnam to the United States in this magnificently detailed graphic novel. If the members of the family get mixed up in your head, if the story seems patchy and confusing, if the whole thing feels too chaotic to you, that’s the point — the Vietnam War was chaos. Tran, born in the U.S., shares with us his own journey of connecting to his roots and learning to understand his family. I was deeply moved by the painstaking love and care painted into every corner of this book, and the artwork is even more expressive than the words.

You can buy it here!

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Lydia Lee is dead at sixteen, and her family members struggle to cope as they try to piece together how and why. There’s no intricate murder mystery here. The story here is in all of the small ways the Lees have failed to communicate with each other, understand one another, and support each other. The pieces, scattered at the beginning, come together seamlessly by the end to form a portrait of a family in crisis. I read this for a class, and ordinarily, it’s the type of book I would scarf down in a day or two. I’m glad that I didn’t and instead had the chance to let it stew.

You can buy it here!

dispossessed

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Shevek is a renowned physicist from the anarchist utopian planet of Anarres, and the first person since the colonization of Anarres to visit its twin planet, Urras, where governments suspiciously reminiscent of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. vie for power. Examining our world through an outsider’s perspective, the faults (and some benefits) of a capitalist system come into focus. In Shevek’s memories of his home planet, on the other hand, we see how the society of an anarchist world might function. It took me a couple of chapters to get into it, but once I did, I was impressed by Le Guin’s gently political writing, which serves as a backdrop to Shevek’s personal narrative.

You can buy it here!

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood is a college student with a supposedly bright future, but there’s a constant cloud over her happiness, something seemingly not traceable to any particular cause. That cloud turns out to be a bone-deep depression. The story describes her downward spiral in a painfully realistic way, capturing the thought patterns of depression with a level of detail that makes sense when you remember that Sylvia Plath committed suicide. This book left me in a funk for days after finishing it.

You can buy it here.

in this corner

In This Corner of the World by Fumiyo Kouno

Suzu is a young newlywed, naïve and spacey, but kind. Living in Hiroshima Prefecture during World War II, rationing, community service, and an ever-increasing number of air raids becomes her new normal. At the same time, she has to deal with more mundane concerns, like getting along with her in-laws and resolving insecurities in her relationship with her new husband. The simplicity of Suzu’s everyday life and the horrors of war combine in poignant contrast, making the inevitable violent ending of the manga even more heartbreaking, yet inspiring.

You can buy it here!

Nota Bene: there is a film of this that is also very good, but it cuts out at least one important plot thread from the book.

passing

Passing by Nella Larsen

Irene Redfield runs into an old acquaintance at a restaurant named Clare Kendry. The twist? They’re both black women masquerading as white in a whites-only establishment. From there, a close but toxic friendship grows between the two women. Clare has a secret, and to escape the pressures of keeping it, she becomes a parasitic presence in Irene’s life, to the mounting frustration of the latter. This moody Harlem Renaissance classic pulled me in, then spat me back out again with its abrupt ending.

You can buy it here!

northanger

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Catherine Morland is a sweet, ordinary teenage girl with one flaw: she is obsessed with novels, particularly, pulpy Gothic romance novels. While on holiday in Bath with some family friends, she falls headfirst into her own romance, but finds that novels have not adequately prepared her for this course of events. There is a surprisingly modern feeling to this book, with the dialogue often prompting me to think, “ah, people really haven’t changed in 200 years.” Being a satire of Gothic romance, this book is chock full of light-hearted and funny moments.

You can buy it here!

Have you read any of these? What did you think of them? What are your favorite reads of the year thus far? I’d love to discuss in the comments.

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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.

Buy The Blazing World here!

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What Makes A Classic?

This post is about classics, but it’s also about what kind of books I’m reading right now.

This past year, I’ve been trying to read, among other things, classic literature written by women. “Classic” can have a lot of different meanings, and for my own purposes, I’ve been pretty liberal with the definition. Most people tend to think of classics as old books that have literary value that have stood the test of time. It sounds simple, but the definition can get hairy pretty quickly.

How old is old enough? I’ve had books written in the 1980s recommended to me as “modern classics,” or books published within the past ten years marketed to me as “instant classics.” They’re good books, but there’s an oxymoron in calling them classic. They haven’t had the chance to stand the test of time yet. Even as we reach backward through time, how far is far enough? Fifty years, eighty years, one hundred?

Literary value is even more subjective. At least with time, we can draw a line in the sand. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Atlas Shrugged aren’t considered by most people to be literary masterpieces (although for almost any book, there are a few out there who would say so), but their ideas are influential enough to land them frequently on lists of classics, whether you agree with those lists or not. Even titans of literature like Les Misérables are widely considered to be in need of a heavy-handed editor, for all of their beautiful prose.

Standing the test of time is the measure that I like least of all. Ideally, standing the test of time would mean that a book’s themes endure, that they speak to the human condition in a way that crosses boundaries of time, culture, and even language. It would mean a book that, for the most part, leaves something of value with any reader who goes in with an open mind. More often, this criterion means something totally different. It’s a popularity contest. Was the book popular in its time? Among whom, the general public or critics? If it was the public or it wasn’t popular, then is there some later group of critics that decided to legitimize it? In my search for classics written by women, I’ve found a plethora of books that won’t be found on the typical list of classics. Some are very old. Some are very well-written. Some are both old and well-written, but they still don’t make the cut. The problem only compounds when looking for non-Western and non-white classics.

One classic book I’ve read within the past year (somewhat old, extremely well-written) is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. She outlines the problem in far clearer and more persuasive terms than I ever could. A major takeaway from it is that as much as history has been written by men, so has been that odd amoeba of literature called the Canon. People with money, time, and space write. Having power doesn’t hurt, either. And so, looking into times and places where women have lacked the resources to produce what are now called classics, we find scraps.

I’m interested in scraps. I’m interested in filling in gaps, or at least figuring out where the gaps are. The past six months have been fascinating to me in connecting the dots, seeing the gradual blooming of female authorship over the course of history, taking into account not only gender but also nationality, race, sexuality, and wealth.

In the end, I’m not actually all that interested in the nebulous and arbitrary division between “classics” and plain old books. I’m interested in reading as broadly and as deeply and as well as I can.

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