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REVIEWING

Silver Sparrow

by Tayari Jones


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill | 2011 | 352 pages | $19.95

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell


tayari jones
Birds Without Feathers

This is a brave book. It addresses an issue that few books, fiction or non-fiction, broach--that of children fathered by married men outside their marriages. The problem’s affect on Black families warrants at least one sociological study.

Jones, author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, centers her story primarily on the daughters inside and outside of the marriage in question. Although the perspective of the mothers is given, it doesn’t get the in-depth treatment of their girls. Dana, the “outside” daughter and the main narrator, is pitiable from the outset. “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on [Gwen] my mother.”

All her life, Dana has lived in the shadows of her father’s marriage. Her very existence is a secret. Her life is part denial, part farce. James is not a part of her family, even though he helped to create it.

It is 1968 in Atlanta, Georgia. The author makes it clear that contraceptive use, in this time and place, was rare.  James has made a pseudo life with Gwen for the same reason he married his wife, Laverne. He got both women pregnant. His marriage to Laverne was a shotgun wedding, but that baby died. Ten years later, he impregnated both Laverne and Gwen. They gave birth months apart.

While both families live in the same city, James’ legal family knows nothing of his other life--with one exception. Raleigh, James’ adopted brother, knows about both families.

Raleigh is the product of a different kind of secret. His father, a white man, raped Raleigh’s mother. She gave Raleigh away as soon as she could.

Abandonment is a leitmotif in this novel. Dana feels abandoned by a father that she sees irregularly and who never fully participates in her life. Her maternal grandmother left her grandfather soon after giving birth to Gwen. Dana is a child who wants to claim an identity with truth and no secrets.

The author shows how Gwen creates a corrosive envy in Dana. She insists that James give Dana the same things he gives Chaurisse, Laverne’s daughter. It doesn’t matter whether Dana wants these things or not. It doesn’t matter whether James can afford to give both girls the same things.  Jones shows the psychology, i.e., the confused thinking of a woman who has built her life around a lie.

In the author’s skillful hands, we see how, slowly and inexorably, Gwen and Dana begin to ignore societal boundaries. The mother takes her daughter out to surveil Laverne and Chaurisse. 

On one occasion, they drive by Chaurisse’s school. “Roll down your window and look out,” she [Gwen] said, “You see that chubby little girl in the blue jeans and red shirt? That’s Chaurisse.”

Dana, according to her mother, is better looking and smarter than her half-sister. Dana begins to believe she is being deprived of her rightful place in James’ life. Meaning, in her mind, she is more deserving of James’ love.

Gwen and Dana also find excuses to talk to Laverne.  Gwen is critical of the clothes Laverne wears and the beauty shop she owns and operates, etc.

Because Jones’ use of metaphor is as courageous and skillful as her subject matter, we see that Gwen is a pretty woman. Laverne is not. Gwen believes that James should love her more because she makes herself attractive for him.

Why does she twist herself and her daughter into knots over another’s woman’s husband when she can get one of her own?  Dana says it’s love.

“What she had with my father was a sort of creeping love, the kind that sinks in before you know it and makes a family of you.” Dana feels this is “God level,” but she’s trying too hard to make it sound acceptable. In Gwen, love operates like a chronic illness.

Although she says she doesn’t want to take James from his wife, Gwen insists he marry her, too, out of state.  Knowing the marriage is illegal, she simply attaches the Mrs. to her maiden name.  Technically, this makes James a bigamist. Gwen thinks this will give her a measure of control over him.

Jones gives us a clue to Gwen’s attachment to James. Once again, it is abandonment. Years after her own mother left her, Gwen left a philandering husband.

Until it becomes clear to Gwen that James can’t support her, Dana and his family, she sets herself up to be a kept woman.

Jones characterizes Gwen as conflicted. She is someone who demeans herself and her daughter over time.  

As Dana’s need for more love grows, she begins to take risks. The author details how the daughter takes the mother’s surveillance routine to the next level. Dana creates an emotional vortex that sucks in everybody in both families.

Throughout the novel, James’ behavior is just as unacceptable as Gwen’s and Dana’s. He makes Raleigh sign Dana’s birth certificate. He shows little, if any, affection or attention to the girl. While he is caring and supportive of Chaurisse, he is distant from and critical of Dana.

It’s as if he blames her for his adultery. In his case, his thinking and his actions are confused and confusing. Until the end of the book, it’s not clear how he feels about Dana. What is clear is his lack of guilt over the affair with Gwen. He symbolizes the kind of man who trivializes heartache and havoc, especially when he causes it himself.

Jones has examined, with lyrical prose and insightful imagery, a problem that has plagued our community for years. Her characters demonstrate what happens when we live with ugly secrets.



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REVIEWING

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life

by Evan Hughes


Henry Holt | 2011 | 335 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


evan hughes

I have a confession to make that might just shock some of you old time readers of this magazine, given my ongoing, shameless display of Bronx chauvinism, and my obvious distaste and love of bashing Brooklyn every chance I get.

In the army, as a teenage wise guy from New York City, I strutted about like a young peacock, grabbing my crouch at every chance, and talked much trash and acted like the know-it-all I still am.

I told all the guys I was from Brooklyn, trying my best to talk out of the side of my mouth, as they looked on at me in slightly baffled amusement.

For some reason, Brooklyn just sounded more badass than being from the unsung Bronx, with only the white shoe Yankees to brag about.

There, it’s finally off my chest, and I feel better already.

***

Brooklyn outclassed us rubes in the Bronx in terms of literary output as well, not being satisfied with being the widely acknowledged tough guys of New York City.  In fact, Evan Hughes’ highly entertaining literary history lesson, Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life, shows us thatBrooklyn also gave Manhattan’s famed Greenwich Village a run for its money as a haven for creative writers.

We touched on this once in the Neworld Review, in Jan Alexander’s groundbreaking essay on Carson McCullers, and her stay at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, made famous in the book, February House by Sherill Tippins, which she shared with, among others, W.H. Auden, Klaus Mann and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Hughes gives us engaging portraits of off and on Brooklyn literary residents like Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, the aforementioned February House, Truman Cupote, William Styron and Norman Mailer, among others.

His concise, well-researched biographic sketches of the writers in Literary Brooklyn are fully brought to life, and are alone well worth the price of the book.

***

Because this is also a book about the physical and economic development of Brooklyn, Hughes provides the proper context for why it became such a magnet for literary types.

When Walt Whitman, “the grandfather of literary Brooklyn,” first arrived as a child of three, in 1823, “it was a place so different from the huge urban mass of today…that it is scarcely possible to hold it in the mind’s eye,” Hughes writes.

One interesting historical tidbit around this time jumped out at me from his book: “In 1800, before slaveholding was abolished in New York State, in 1827, about 60 percent of the white households within Brooklyn’s current borders owned at least one slave, the highest proportion in the north,” he writes.

In the first years of his 30s, Whitman was writing his self-published masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, which Hughes points out, “drew breath from the people of Brooklyn.” A little over ten years later, at the eve of the Civil War, Brooklyn had grown from a quiet little village of five thousand during Whitman’s childhood, to the nation’s third largest city.

“Part of what spurred the growth,” Hughes writes, ”was Brooklyn’s investment in an industrial waterfront that competed with Manhattan’s. By the time that Henry Miller’s family moved to Williamsburg in the early 1890s soon after his birth, this is what Manhattan had become, as Harper’s magazine had noted a few decades earlier: ‘What was then a decent and orderly town of moderate size, has been converted into a huge semi-barbarous metropolis—one half as luxurious and artistic as Paris, the other half as savage as Cairo and Constantinople—not well-governed, but simply not governed at all’.”

Hughes points out that “by the time Miller was born, Brooklyn had become something of a release valve, a place New Yorkers came in search of a haven, but also a place where trouble tended to follow them.”

And come they did. In fact, so many Jews fled the crowded tenements of lower Manhattan that soon over 40 percent of Jews in New York were living in Brooklyn. By this time, Brooklyn was no longer a separate city, but had joined with the rest of New York, much to the dismay of many of its citizens.

Manhattan was becoming a polarized place of lavish townhouses and mansions for the well-off, and dismal tenements for almost everyone else, which eventually led to the building of the famous brownstones that Brooklyn is still famous for, as well as attached houses and roomy apartment buildings, all kept to a smaller scale than Manhattan or the Bronx.

People got to know each other in Brooklyn neighborhoods, which only added to the borough’s charm and rapid growth.

But a seamier side of Brooklyn had also begun to emerge, especially around the docks where most of the creative writers ended up because of the cheap rent (I can still hear Marlon Brando overacting in On the Waterfront: “I could have been a contender, instead of a bum.”).

Longshoremen and sailors from all over the world, the marginal, the sex- obsessed and lowlifes of all kinds, ages, shapes, and colors, all crowded the many bars and dives that dotted the landscape.

Unlike the sedate poet Marianne Moore, who lived quietly further inland, in Fort Green with her mother, novelists like Henry Miller and Thomas Wolfe relished the constant two-fisted challenge to self from the docks, and drew much from the dangerous, volatile world of the waterfront.

For gay poets like W. H, Auden and Hart Crane, who often came back to their housing battered and bruised, they had the thrilling adventure of cruising Sands Street, with its many “sailor bars,” seeking that perfect sailor—the one that would most captured their imaginations, and provide the muse they long sought.

***

In time, due to the earlier influx of Jews, as noted, Brooklyn, starting with the depression years of the 30s, started producing an amazing group of Jewish writers. For most of these writers, it wasn’t a tough guy persona, or even writing  the great American novel, filled with the hapless riffraff of Sands Street, they wanted most to write about.

What they wanted to project to the world was raw intelligence, the value of education, knowing things, and deep insights into the human condition. In other words, there was nothing wrong with being an intellectual.

Evan Hughes once again is highly impressive with his portraits of Daniel Fuchs, Bernard Malamud, and Alfred Kazin, among others.

***

Another American mass movement of people also took place, which would soon have a tremendous impact on Brooklyn: the great migration of millions of blacks fleeing the fascist south. Here is where Richard Wright takes center stage in Literary Brooklyn.

Richard Wright is more than just a footnote in American literary history. He was one of the first that held up the unblinking mirror to America, both black and white, that said, this is who you really are.

He wrote his two most famous books, Native Son, and Black Boy in Brooklyn.

***

Literary Brooklyn skillfully brings us up to present day Brooklyn, after taking the reader through the great collapse of the wartime economy, including another interesting historical tidbit: The Brooklyn Navy Yard produced more ships during World War Two than all of Japan!

We start to see rapid urban decline and despair, reflected best by Hubert Selby, Jr.’s grim, in your face Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Arthur Miller’s tale of economic defeat in Death of a Salesman, which had Brooklyn written all over it, but which struck an accord with all of America, most of whom were enduring some of the same change of events, often with the same dismal results that the confused, deeply disappointed Willy Loman faced.

***

In the end, Brooklyn was slowly brought back to life, first by the pioneering “brownstoners,” who bought sturdy, but well-worn dwellings (a special nod should go to those many African American women who have helped maintain this historical housing), when no one with any good sense wanted to come anywhere near certain areas of Brooklyn. Then the artists started coming, led by people like filmmaker Spike Lee, and the Village Voice writer Nelson George.

Suddenly, Brooklyn was cool again.

Again, like in years past, it offered the affordable rent that one could not find in Manhattan, as even the once trashy East Village was now overrun with big pocketed, Wall Street types.

Hughes gives us a passing look at present day Brooklyn creative writers including Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody, Jonathan Safran Foer, Susan Choi, Nathan Englander, Nicole Krauss, Darin Strauss, Kurt Andersen, Arthur Phillips, Julie Orringer, Rivka Galchen, Keith Gessen, Hannah Tinti, Tim McLoughlin and Jonathan Ames.

***

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life

 is wonderful literary history lesson, well told, and I was sad that it had to end. I once again thank my friends at Henry Holt for sending me yet another compelling book to review, and thank author Evan Hughes for writing it; and if he would ever like to write for the Neworld Review, he is more than welcome.

It’s books like Literary Brooklyn that cause you to not only walk the streets of Brooklyn, but also Manhattan, my beloved Bronx, Queens, and even lowly Staten Island, all of which have played huge roles in America’s literary history--and hear countless stories, some beyond awful, some beyond wonderful, some beyond belief--and makes one feel proud to have grown up in New York, and to have reached one of the highest honors this great city bestows, that of a literary editor and publisher.



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REVIEWING

A Decade of Hope

by Dennis Smith with Deirdre Smith


Viking Penguin | 2011 | 356 pages | $26.95

Reviewed by Michael Carey


decadeHope

The Koenig Sphere stood in the plaza of the World Trade Center for thirty years. It was conceived as a symbol of world peace. After being damaged in the attacks of September 11, 2001, but still standing, the sculpture “endures as an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.” Dennis Smith’s A Decade of Hope is a tribute to that hope and spirit.

9/11 can’t be mentioned without most Americans, and many people around the world, thinking about the destruction of the World Trade Center or where they were when it happened. I was a freshman in college. For most of my college career, I started class at 8 am CT, so I was probably walking to class when the North Tower was hit. I was unaware that our nation was under attack until I arrived at some friends’ apartment afterwards to find them glued to the TV. “Mike, we’re under attack.”

I didn’t believe them until I watched for a minute. I was stunned with disbelief, but not personally affected, except for the marked decline in the quality of country music on that day. I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone near Manhattan.

A Decade of Hope offers the reader a chance to intimately know a number of souls lost or wounded on 9/11/2001. Each interviewee recounts something of their lost loved ones and their experience that fateful day. As a former firefighter, and through his activities in the 9/11 community, Dennis Smith is uniquely qualified to deliver this powerful compilation of interviews.

Each 9/11 experience shared in Smith’s book relates the loss, heartbreak, or despair each interviewee felt. And when the loss was a blood relation or a spouse, they would start with a tale of the origins and close relationship they shared with the deceased. I personally enjoyed the dynamic between firemen twins Zack and Andre Fletcher, in which Andre tries to convince Zack to pick him up from the Newark Airport in the middle of the night, a favor he could no more deny his brother than I could.

It was a favor, however, that put Andre on duty the morning of 9/11.

 A Decade of Hope is full of stories of love, joy, and heroism, but also contains the terrible devastation that filled that day. It is a tear-jerking account of the world in which so many lived: the memorials and funerals, the thousands of missing persons pictures posted around Manhattan, and the void that filled the city and the country as people hoped against hope that their loved ones would call and say that they were alright.

Smith’s selection of interviewees, as evidenced by the title of the book, are examples of people moving forward from the tragedy with positivity. The past decade has not been easy for them and they are not unscarred, but they all remember their loved ones and with that memory try to make the world safer and better.

Many of the interviewees have founded numerous funds and foundations dedicated to education, veterans, and the families of the FDNY and NYPD. Rudy Adad founded a village in the Philippines in memory of his wife Marie Rose. A school was built in Afghanistan in memory of Wendy Wakeford, the sister of Ada Rosario Dolch, who was the principal of the Leadership and Public Service High School two blocks away from the World Trade Center.  MyGoodDeed.Org was co-founded by George Siller in memory of his brother Stephen, a fireman who ran through the Brooklyn Tunnel to the towers and ultimately to his death, with only the thought of helping others.

These are only a few examples of the amazing stories and the positive actions that have come from the tragic events ten years ago. Others have made it their life’s work or volunteered their time and experience to educate the world as to what happened that day in the hope that it never happens again.

The issue of Islam, and where to place the blame, is addressed by many of the interviewees, and I would not be covering the book properly if I were not to mention it. For most in the book, hate and blame for or on the Muslim community is not part of their healing process. They are aware of the danger of extremists, but know that that danger is present in any religion.

Others blame Muslims for their inability or unwillingness to root out the violent factions in their own communities. However, Talat Hamdani, a Muslim whose son, Mohammed Salman, was an EMT and a NYPD cadet who saw the pillaring smoke on his way to work, ran to try and assist anyone he could. He lost his life for his fellow Americans.

Talat was given a hard time for her faith and the sadly misguided authorities wanted to group her son with the terrorists rather than with the heroes of that day. There is the issue of political correctness that looms over our society, and there is also the issue of national security. There is no easy answer for our country, but many of the interviewees feel that action is needed and some are involved in being catalysts for change, and are working towards making New York and our country safer.

Dan D’Allara, who lost his twin brother, John, an Emergency Service Unit detective on 9/11, acknowledged that the terrorist attack was an attack on Americans and our culture, but then countered by saying, “We’re American. America ‘should’ mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but that meaning should be fundamentally American—free, fair, hardworking, and with allegiance to our flag and our law.”

A Decade of Hope is a tremendously powerful account of the good that can come out of life after tragedy. It is an account of heroism, life, and love, and of loss and recovery. Some of the accounts are so moving, I fought back tears every few pages. They come from real people who have experienced real loss and live with it everyday. You can feel this deprevation in their words. This is a book I wouldn’t normally have been drawn to nor purchased, but I’m so glad I did. I’ve learned so much about that infamous day and it has inspired me to get involved.

“We will never forget,” now has personal meaning for me and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from this riveting account. The motto for the World Trade Center was “Peace and stability through trade.” One of the towers’ architects, Minora Yamaski, said, “The World Trade Center should become a living representation of man’s belief in humanity… his belief in the cooperation of men.” Thanks to the men and women that gave their life that day and the response from so many Americans in both aid and affection, the World Trade Center sadly and joyously has become just that.



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REVIEWING

Wendy and the Lost Boys

by Julie Salamon


Penguin Books | 2011 | 427 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber


julie salamon
Poor Little Rich Girl OR Wendy’s Tangled Web

Like my favorite 19th century poet and man-about-town, Robert Browning, Wendy Wasserstein went out every night of the week to one party or another, and captivated all with her wit, intelligence and warmth, while creating a web of friends, acquaintances and contacts in the theater world that became her lifeblood.

When she mysteriously died at age 55, the over 1500 people who mourned at her funeral shuddered to think that there was so much they never really understood about her; so much, by design that she kept hidden: the seriousness of her failing health, the paternity of the child she bore at age 48, and the consequences of betraying her in even small ways.

 How was it possible for this playwright, who found humor and universality in her family’s considerable foibles and freely mined them for her material while declaring little off bounds, to keep such monumental secrets from even her closest allies? 

Salamon peers behind the curtain at the giggling, chubby, wild-haired, and often unkempt playwright who articulated the pressures women faced at the height of the sexual revolution in the 1970’s (marriage vs. career vs. kids) to shed light on the real Wendy: compulsive and perfectionistic about her writing, competitive with her uber-achieving siblings, conflicted about sexuality and intimacy, and confounded and disturbed about family dynamics and skeletons in the closet. (Were her sister and brother also her cousins? Did she have one brother or two?)

 Wendy in the spotlight.  A woman struggling like the rest of us to lead a fulfilling life and shrug off the emotional baggage strapped to her back.

Regardless of whether we are fans of The Heidi Chronicles or The Sisters Rosensweig (to name her most famous plays), we recognize that Wendy fulfilled herself in so many ways: she was at the forefront of women coming into their own, she worked with the leading lights on Broadway (and was one of them), and she carved out a very prominent career as a playwright, journalist and popular speaker on the touring circuit.  Presumably, she even made her demanding mother happy once she became as renowned in her own right as her brother, Bruce Wasserstein, a fearsome power in the financial world, and her sister, Sandra, a high-level exec at General Foods, American Express and Citicorp.

 And let’s not forget– she won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony, and numerous other awards. She had many friends and close intimates in the theatrical and artistic world.  Then, after years of fertility treatments, she succeeded in having the baby she always craved.

Salamon takes us through Wendy’s early life as the youngest of the well-heeled Wassersteins, one of five children, daughter of Morris, ribbon manufacturer, and Lola, housewife and wannabe dancer.  Wendy appeared in some ways to be rather lost, ever the outsider. She attended the Calhoun school, Mt. Holyoke College (BA), CCNY (MA) and the Yale School of Drama (MFA) and seemed to fall into writing and theatre, almost accidentally.

She soon teamed up with Andre Bishop (Lincoln Center Artistic Director), Chris Durang and Terrence McNally (playwrights) and was involved in the early careers of such luminaries as Meryl Streep, Swoosie Kurtz, Glenn Close and Frank Rich.

Wendy’s personal life was notable in the fact that she never married and rarely gravitated toward heterosexual men.  On the contrary, her greatest and closest love affairs were with self-acknowledged homosexual men: William Ivey Long (costume designer), Andre Bishop and Chris Durang.

 There is little doubt that these were true love affairs, much like the one recently highlighted in last June’s New York Times’ Metropolitan essay, In the Family, by NR Kleinfeld. It focused on a straight woman’s relationship with the father of her child, a gay man, and this father’s living arrangements split between her and his gay lover.  Wendy herself did not to know why she sought out “impossible men”; maybe it was because she had a poor self-image and, as Salamon describes it, not much enthusiasm for sexual relationships.

Salamon is an expert guide to Wendyiana; the book is smooth-sailing, intriguing and satisfying.  Salamon does not really delve too deeply into an analysis of the various plays; she is far more interested in understanding the woman spinning the web.  Her title refers of course to Peter Pan and Wendy’s namesake, who eventually does have to grow up, and to our Wendy who resisted that transition.  She had a primordial dread of becoming a housewife; she needn’t have worried – between the late 20th century zeitgeist and her artistic talent and drive, she found a way to follow her own counsel and live her life on her own terms.



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REVIEWING

Carthage Must be Destroyed—The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization

by Richard Miles


Viking | 2011 | 544 pages

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe


richard miles

Although I didn’t see all the places on my wish list to visit—Istanbul’s San Sophia or the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, to name a few—I did see Carthage. To see the ruins of this once great, ancient city was on my itinerary when I visited North Africa during the summer of 2004.

The tragic story of how this lovely and powerful country, situated on the southern Mediterranean coast of what is now Tunisia, was destroyed in 146 BC by the Romans stirred my imagination--they literally salted the ground so that it could never rise again.

Knowing how pitiless was their destruction, I expected that Carthage would be a place of desolation, but such was not the case. Carthage was built on an isthmus made up of a series of sandstone hills that jut into the sea. From Tunis, the modern capital of Tunisia, one can take a train to Cap Bon, a pretty town of white-washed villas covered with bougainvillea, perched at its northern-most point, and then travel south along the eastern seaboard through Roman ruins and the ruins of Carthage. Because of the gentle breezes that waft in from the sea and the agreeable temperatures, Carthage would have been a pleasant place in which to live.

Apparently, the ancient Phoenicians thought so too. An ancient people who originated in the Levant around what is now Beirut, Lebanon, they were known for ship building, sea-faring and mercantile abilities. The Mediterranean was their apple, so to speak, as they traded all along its’ coasts from Beirut to eastern Spain, where they established numerous colonies. But Carthage became their capital city, and they became the Carthaginians.

This is from the book’s jacket: “Richard Miles teaches Ancient History at the University of Sydney and is a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He has written widely on Punic, Roman and Vandal North Africa and has directed archaeological excavations in Carthage and Rome. He is currently filming Ancient Worlds, a new six part series on the Ancient World for the BBC.”

Centuries before Christ’s birth, Carthage grew into a powerful city-state. For one hundred years, Carthage and its northern rival, Rome, battled for dominance of the Classical World. The devastating struggle between the Carthaginians and the Romans was one of the defining dramas of the Ancient World. In a series of epic sea battles, both sides came close to victory before Carthage was finally defeated.

Someone recently told me that there’s a story that aliens decided not to inhabit planet earth because its people are too war-like. History certainly proves this so. Though not a historian, I’ve observed that most wars were fought because one people desired the resources of another people’s territory. This was the motivation that caused the increasingly powerful Rome to covet the lands controlled by the Carthaginians—particularly in Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily.

When the Carthaginians restricted them from the silver-rich east coast of Spain, Rome went to battle.

Carthage Must be Destroyed is a very scholarly book, perhaps written more for other scholars than the lay public. As such, certain things are presupposed, things that the lay reader may or may not know. This caused me to revert, as I sometimes do when I want a summary of information, to a high-school world history book given to me years ago by a Brooklyn history teacher. Here’s its summary of the clash between Rome and Carthage:

The Roman conquest of Italy brought them in contact with Carthage, a powerful city on the coast of North Africa. Carthage had been founded by the Phoenicians about one hundred years before the village of Rome was established. By the third century BC it had become the center of a rich and powerful commercial empire.

At first, Rome was untroubled by the power of Carthage. Later, Carthage angered the Romans by refusing to permit them to trade in the western Mediterranean area. Finally, when Carthage tried to occupy northeastern Sicily—dangerously close to the coat of Italy—the Romans turned to war in an effort to crush this new threat. The three wars fought between Rome and Carthage are the Punic Wars (Punic meant Phoenician in Latin).

Rome Wins the First Punic War

In the First Punic War (264-241 BC) the Romans built ships, learned how to maneuver them, and finally defeated Carthage on the sea. As a result of her victory, Rome gained control of a major part of the island of Sicily. She also won additional freedom to travel on the Mediterranean Sea. The First Punic War had not settled the basic issues between Rome and Carthage. Both sides knew that the struggle would continue, and each used the period of peace to prepare for further war.

Hannibal Crosses the Alps

Carthage soon sought revenge for her defeat by Rome, and war again broke out. The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was marked by the extraordinary exploits of Hannibal, a great Carthaginian general who decided to march an army over the Alps to make a surprise attach on the Romans! In 218 BC Hannibal led a force of 40,000 foot soldiers, 87 African elephants carrying supplies, and 8000 horsemen through Spain and southern Gaul (part of modern France) until he reached the Alps. Then, in the month of November, he scaled the dangerous 10,000-foot climb over the mountains.

It was a disastrous journey, but Hannibal refused to give up. “No part of the Alps reaches the sky,” he shouted to his men and promised them that they would cross the top. And cross it they did—although only one half of them made it safely to the plain of northern Italy. Here Hannibal rested his men, drew up his military plans, and prepared to fight.

The Second Punic War Ends

The Romans sent an army to meet the Carthaginians, but Hannibal’s troops crushed them and moved forward. Lacking the equipment needed to batter down the walls of Rome, the Carthaginian leader could not take the capital. Instead, he remained in Italy over fifteen years and caused much destruction.

Finally, in an effort to draw Hannibal from Italy, the Romans ordered an army under Scipio to attack Carthage directly. The Carthaginians sent a hurried call to Hannibal to return home at once to defend his people. He did—and at the Battle of Zama (202 BC), the great Carthaginian general was at last defeated. The defeat of Hannibal ended the Second Punic War. Carthage was forced to disarm and to give up most of its possessions.

As well written as this book is, I would only recommend it to those who have a taste for scholarly, historical works and the patience to wade through them, for Carthage Must Be Destroyed is a weighty tome. If one can get through its first half, he will be rewarded in the second half, especially once Hannibal, the mighty, charismatic Carthaginian general, enters the stage when the story becomes intensely interesting. Who can forget the story of Hannibal taking 40,000 foot soldiers, 87 African elephants carrying supplies, and 8000 horsemen over the Alps in the dead of winter to launch a surprise attack on Rome? We talk of pyrrhic victories and Herculean tasks—I’m surprised there’s not a phrase for doing something quite extraordinary, requiring huge effort and largely succeeding in it—as, say, “a Hannibalian effort” would be.

But military geniuses are not necessarily good statesmen or politicians—Hannibal lost the support of the fickle Carthaginians because he was too strict a moralist, and he was ostracized from Carthage. He fled east into Asia Minor. Rather than be captured, he took poison and died condemning the Romans for their vindictiveness, impiety and lack of faith.

Carthage, in fact, became prosperous again after the Second Punic War, causing Rome once again to worry about her re-establishing military strength. Cato, in the Roman Senate, rallied for her complete destruction—he “presented the infamous dossier of Carthage’s six reputed transgressions of its obligations to Rome” and stated that “Carthage must be destroyed!”

It was a case of hype and skewed information, but won the day. Soon all the might of the Roman Empire came down on Carthage. Hardly a blade of grass was left growing in Carthage after Rome’s destruction of it.

The Punic Wars were extremely important as they established Rome as the foremost power in the known world. Following them the Romans referred to the Mediterranean as mare nostrum, “our sea.”

“Rome’s newly found status was expressed not only in the power to obliterate, but also in the power to justify the unjustifiable”, writes Richard Miles.

“In their perfidy in such a pitiless destruction of such a great civilization the Romans vilified Carthage, self-righteously proclaiming its supposed transgressions.”

Sound familiar?

With the destruction of Carthage the Romans became the makers of history.

Had Carthage been the victor of the Punic wars, the history of the world would have been considerably different. Perhaps it was Carthage’s fate. In the Aeneid, penned by Virgil in the first century BC, Aeneas, the forefather of the Roman people, sails to Carthage where he has a love affair with Dido, the Queen of Carthage. When he abandons her, she is so desolate from her loss that she commits suicide.

As it was, Rome continued her expansion into Gaul, Spain and Great Britain. She ruled the known world until her fall in 410 AD when she was overrun by barbarian hordes. The panoply of Roman gods were replaced by Christianity after the conversation of Constantine in 325 AD.



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REVIEWING

Maine

by J. Courtney Sullivan


Knopf | 2011 | $25.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau


j courtney sullivan

One More Book for a Summer Read

Ahhh, summer reading… Although time is ticking away and the crunch of leaves is near, you can still think it’s summer and indeed, technically it still is.  You don’t have to be too serious or showoff-ish for summer reading.  It’s a time to exchange Proust for mysteries, true crime, or my favorite indulgence, “chick-lit,” although I never really known what qualifies for this category.  If a book has well-crafted paragraphs, does it get disqualified from “chick-lit”?

In this case, Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan, would be disqualified because there’s lots of good writing in this fresh, funny novel.  Sullivan knows her subject—Maine—and adroitly describes the beaches, cottages, and lobster restaurants.  But most important to the book is the family compound, where three generations of Kelleher’s, an Irish-Catholic clan, gather each summer.

The novel is told from the perspective of four women in the family: Alice, the “larger-than-life,” sometimes brittle, yet endearing matriarch; Kathleen, her rebellious daughter who lives a “hippie-dippy” life (according to her mother) on a worm farm in California; Maggie, a thirty-something, anal, yet loving New Yorker with a cool job and a horrid boyfriend; and Ann Marie, a Martha Stewart wanna- be with an obsession for dollhouses (also described with great wit).  As you can see, the women are created as opposites who come at each other from all sides.  The dialogue is sometimes hilarious, with the poignancy of real-life conversations that occur between mothers and daughters.  There are also tender moments, especially between Kathleen and Maggie.

The book flip-flops between the perspectives of these women, so one chapter is given to Alice and another to Maggie and so forth.  Sometimes I find this technique troublesome, but Sullivan creates a solid balancing act, giving each character her voice while not shying away from unpleasantness. It’s a testament to the book, that over a nice dinner my aunt and I discussed our favorite characters (Maggie for me, Kathleen for her) while other guests looked on bored.

“You know these people aren’t real, right?” quipped my aunt’s husband. 

“Yes,” we wailed.

Because the book is written in this somewhat confessional style (and the Catholicism of the families makes the confessional style feel especially apt), the reader is privy to the characters’ secrets—their jealousies, desires, and dreams.  Sullivan masterfully doles out the back-stories of the characters a bit at a time, making the reader hungry for more.

Alice’s story is especially intriguing.  Based on a real-life event, a fire at a club in Boston, the reader begins to understand why Alice becomes the hardened, sometimes maddening person she becomes.  When she’s a girl, she vows to leave the blue-collar world she feels trapped in and make something of herself—preferably as an artist in Paris.  This hope is dashed when a tragedy bestows her beloved sister, Mary.  Alice is terribly jealous of Mary, yet the jealousy is unfounded—Mary, the good girl, the saint, only wants what’s best for her little sister. 

When drab Mary gets whisked into the realm of the elite (she gets a little mink shawl and pretty dresses from her suave boyfriend), Alice can’t stand it and acts with bitter vengeance toward her sister.  The ensuing tragedy results in Alice giving up her artistic dreams (as an act of penance) and propels her to marry, have children, and lead an “ordinary life.”  But leading a so-called “ordinary life” almost kills her—she becomes melancholy, claustrophobic, and tries to quell the pain by binge drinking.  I want to applaud Sullivan for doing her homework.  The scene of the fire was realistic and well researched.

So everything was going along well with my reading experience.  I wasn’t devouring the book, but everywhere I went the book accompanied me, poised for reading in my beach bag along with our suits.  There were enough plot developments to keep me intrigued.  Would Maggie have an abortion?  Would Ann Marie have an affair with a friend of her husband’s?  And the most interesting plot line of all:  what would happen to the summer compound itself?  Unbeknownst to her children and grandchildren, Alice, who is just beginning to show the first signs of senility, has told the young priest she flirts with that she’s changing her will to leave all her Maine property to the church.  When her children find out, they are livid.  In one juicy scene, the pert, perfect daughter-in-law Ann Marie stomps on Alice’s tomato plants and turns them to a pulpy mess outside the cottage.  This cinematic moment got me hooked.

But then I came across an error in the book. I thought there were too many editors to let such a discrepancy occur.  It involved a letter that Maggie was going to write to her mother.  In the book she considers writing an e-mail, but then decides to write a letter instead, because the news was too important for an e-mail.  A bit later the mother talks about getting the news in an e-mail.  This may not seem like a big mistake and it wouldn’t have been if the author hadn’t made such a point of choosing a letter over an e-mail for her character.  I have to say that after this, my faith in the book and in the writer slipped.  I thought of writing to the publishers at once, but instead went to my aunt’s.  “Did you see the mistake?”

“Yes. In the letter?”

I continued to read the book, but half-heartedly.  It was hard to “lose myself” when I no longer trusted the author completely. I also found the ending very anti-climatic.  Perhaps I was ready for a showdown between Alice and her children and grandchildren, but the book just seemed to lose energy as it progressed.  It made me realize again what I always knew—it is much easier to create an opening than an ending.

The cottage in which I was staying happened to have an old copy of Alice Munro’s Open Secrets.  I dipped into that book when I wasn’t reading Maine.  Once again, this “master of the short story” floored me.  But what struck me the most was the similarity of themes between Munro and Sullivan.

Both write about the world of women.  Both speak of generational shifts and tensions.  Both talk about desire and how it clouds reason and about secrets that alter the characters’ lives.  “Chick lit.”  Yet when Munro talks about secrets there is a subtlety and mysteriousness to her writing.  Her characters seem to breathe with all the complexity of real people.  Also, like real people, her characters remain in some way unknowable.  And her endings—Alice Munro knows how to end a story.  She always seems to create one more twist, whether it be a major leap in time, or a piece of information finally revealed that makes the reader realize that all along she had been fooled.

But it doesn’t seem fair to compare Sullivan to Munro.  Sullivan is a relatively new writer; Munro is a master.  I will continue to read Sullivan’s other books.  She shows great promise and I’m drawn to her humor.  I can’t remember the last book I actually laughed out loud while reading (certainly not Alice Munro). And humor is great, maybe because if we women didn’t laugh at ourselves—at our obsessions, petty rivalries, outrageous mistakes—we would cry.  But, please, editors, no more mistakes!



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REVIEWING

White Heat

by M. J. McGrath


Viking Press | 2011 | 381 pages | $25.95

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


melanie j mcgraph

One of the most striking aspects of M. J. McGrath’s White Heat is how strangely Viking Press has chosen to market it. The first curious decision is the book’s designation as a novel. The second is its elegant cover depicting the silhouette of an Inuit woman in a large fur coat, the image smudged and fraying at the edges. The third is the selection of quotes that litter the back cover and dust jacket, the most hyperbolic of which informs potential readers that “once in a blue moon a book comes along that exposes the world to us in a new light, makes us question everything: who we are, what we think we know, our beliefs and values, even the nature and purpose of our existence. White Heat is such a book. Seek it out and bask in it.”           The author of this testimonial is one James Thompson, the writer of something called Lucifer’s Tears.

Given such glowing reviews, I think I can be forgiven for having expected a psychological tour de force of a novel. Unfortunately, after completing White Heat, instead of questioning the nature and purpose of my existence, I was left pondering what sort of fragile emotional state Mr. Thompson was in to be so deeply affected by a book in which the author actually identifies her villains as “the Russians” and forces them to assume aliases pulled from Crime and Punishment. Perhaps Ms. McGrath was so overcome by the idea of Arctic cold that she inadvertently fell back on every cliché of Cold War literature.

On the whole, White Heat is not really a bad book. The first thing to straighten out, though, is that it’s not a novel—it’s a thriller. The ending is a hodgepodge of unlikely circumstances and sudden revelations, but that’s pretty standard fare in the thriller genre, so I won’t get too up in arms about that.

If nothing else, I’ve expanded my vocabulary to include the word “astrobleme”—for the uninitiated, the crater left by a meteor that has impacted the earth—and I now know that if I’m ever in search of whiskey in the Arctic, Canadian Mist is a cheap and reliable option.

Both of these facts play fairly large roles in White Heat, which centers around a hostile, often drunk, but nevertheless determined Inuit guide named Edie Kiglatuk. On a routine trip to Craig Island, guiding a man named Robert Wagner and his assistant Andy Taylor, Wagner is shot. Circumstances are mysterious, but to avoid non-Inuit interference, the town council decides to rule the death as accidental, and Edie goes along with the verdict—until Taylor goes missing and her beloved stepson, Joe, is found dead in his bed. Then, galvanized by grief and anger, Edie goes bravely forth to discover the truth of this messy situation herself, downing many, many handles of whiskey and building the occasional ice house along the way.

The narrative flips between Edie and Sergeant Derek Palliser, the indifferent policeman stationed in the region whose real passions include lemmings and the beautiful Russian woman, Misha. Palliser himself has succumbed to the inertia of the north but is spurred back to life by the unfolding mystery and Edie’s insistent late-night telephone calls.

As with most thrillers, the story becomes more and more improbable as it goes on, roping in the aforementioned Russians, mysterious rocks, oil companies, drugs, and traitors within the community. There are perhaps one too many plotlines by the story’s conclusion—it’s hard not to be confused by who did what to whom and when. The inside man is evident from early in the book, somewhat diminishing the impact of the “big reveal” at the end; what is mainly surprising about this epiphany is that Edie and Palliser did not arrive at it sooner.

Speaking of revelations, the convention of the villain explaining his or her misdeeds and thought processes to his pursuer before trying to kill him is becoming tiresome. Clever killers spend less time talking about killing people and more time killing them. That’s the secret to their success.

Some credit is due to Ms. McGrath for the unlikely setting of White Heat, in the remote Inuit communities of the Arctic, and her choice of an Inuit woman as a heroine. However, although alluding to the tensions between the Inuit and qalunaat (i.e., white) worlds, she never delves deeply into the complexities of that relationship. Western values are clearly seen as a hostile force, but the Inuit community is hardly portrayed in a positive light; instead, Ms. McGrath emphasizes its broken family bonds, endemic drinking and drug problems, and lack of work ethic.

Ultimately, White Heat is a quick and pleasant read, but is hardly what the Viking PR machine claims it to be.



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