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Original Essays | September 4, 2014

Edward E. Baptist: IMG The Two Bodies of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism

My new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is the story of two bodies. The first body was the new... Continue »
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dwrites has commented on (13) products.

The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig
The Bartender's Tale

dwrites, November 10, 2012

I have certainly done my share of loving Ivan Doig. The Whistling Season is one of just a handful of novels that stick with me year by year, and I read hundreds of novels every year. So I was excited to find The Bartender's Tale on the "new" shelf at my local library.

I've been known to be wrong, and it's hard to argue against a Kirkus review, but I'm sorry to report that I held my nose through a lot of The Bartender's Tale.

There are phrases, and phrase types, that Doig uses ad nauseum. One wants to look past these, to attribute them to the particular voice of the narrator, perhaps -- but then they fall persistently out of the mouths of various characters, and there goes that excuse, and it was a weak one to begin with.

Some of the prose is so muddled and plain muddy that a sentence will bear reading several times before the reader can catch the meaning. This is not, sorry to say, due to some sophisticated or elegant style or voice, but in fact the opposite. When writing is so clumsy that it calls attention to itself, it cannot be said to be elegant, can it. (That particular form of sentence, that ultimate clause with period that I just used, Doig employs so frequently, emerging from various characters and sometimes in the direct narration itself, that you can find two or more on a single page in more than one instance.)

I could pay for a hard-cover edition of this novel if I had a dollar for every time a form of the word "savvy" is used as a verb. Not even kidding. Maybe it was a kind of convention of the time and place (1960 rural Montana) of the book's setting, but this amount of repetition is plain annoying -- unless it's meant to depict an annoying habit of a particular character which, in this case, it is not.

Some threads are just plain lost or unfinished. When the starring pair of 12 year-olds are employed to rehearse dramatic lines with the local news editor's wife, the thread kind of peters along until it peters out, never mind that a happily-ever-after, quick-finish wrap-up in the final two pages of the novel shows that those moments became meaningful to the eventual life's work of the two kids. It ends up reading as a kind of after-thought, and it's a shame; a bit more development seemed promised and never delivered.

The saving grace is that one does find it easy to care for the two young protagonists, and therefore to care about the story of their dramatic summer of '60. That's why, though I vowed again and again to put the book down and not pick it back up, I plodded through. And with the exception of a certain few passages, owing to awkward syntax all over the place and even more awkward dialogue -- not what one expects of Ivan Doig -- it WAS a plod, I'm afraid. The boy's father, the most vital character besides the kids, held so much promise of complexity that one just keeps waiting for him to flower in full, but he seldom succeeds in developing much past two dimensions.

Now, again, I'm no PhD. I'm going to allow that maybe there's a secret formula or a certain form celebrated in The Bartender's Tale that just swoops over my head. I have read reviews that seem to repeat the "old-fashioned novel" notion. Well, I love a good old-fashioned novel; I repeat that I have loved Doig, and Dickens finds his way to my nightstand at least once a year, and plenty of honestly good, fully-developed novels that one might think of as pre-post-modern make their way into my mix. I anticipated this one with relish. But if a book has to stand on its own without regard for the great name behind it, well, this one is Doig's clunker, at least from where I sit.

Worth reading? That's why I give it three stars rather than two; it's a compelling-enough story, with a couple of well-enough drawn characters, if "enough" is enough for you to spend four hundred pages with. Reviewers have remarked of Bartender that Doig evokes time and place with some mastery. True enough, usually; there are whiffs of it here. But mostly even the setting, right down to the magical back room where pawn is collected for a reason kept secret until the last few pages, is more cardboard than one anticipates from Doig.

If one is interested in the Doig canon, it's worth a read. Particularly since someone else may disagree with me and come over here to tell me why I'm wrong. I want to be wrong.
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Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

dwrites, March 6, 2012

An utterly delightful memoir with places exotic and (sort of) homespun circling around some pretty sumptuous recipes. Any traveler or child gone off to school without really wanting to will recognize how sometimes a nightmare becomes paradise and sometimes it's the other way around.

Reichl unfurls the flag of how she became a very fine chef by happening into recipes out of desperation (with a mother who scrapes mold off of food, or sometimes doesn't even bother, and serves it to guests at large parties) and out of love -- for the food and for the many cooks she meets on adventures she seems to have happened into throughout her life. By necessity starting to cook by about age 7, recipes and food experimentation were never causes for anxiety for this autonomous (also by necessity) girl and young woman. They were a means to an end and then, of course, to the heart of all matters.

I can't wait to try all the recipes. Well, almost all: I'm taking a pass on the ham-style corned beef (from mold-mother's recipes), and maybe on that dish that combines chicken and a lot of sugar, and but who knows? Reading about Reichl's adventures makes me want to try just about anything!

Reichl tells us in an afterword that the recipes dotted throughout the book like butter on top of a good custard take the place of photographs, which come at the end of the book. I almost missed a good opportunity by bypassing the recipes, the faster to consume the story; but when I chanced to stop and look one over, I realized my mistake: Anyone who likes to cook will easily slide a little deeper into the person whose recipe appears on the page and it is worth the effort. There is something visceral that you take away from such an offering that cannot be conveyed in any photograph.

Apple dumplings with hard sauce follows a story about an adopted grandma and her Barbadian cook who have a secret; fried chicken illuminates a section about the woman in the Village (what do you mean, What village? It was the '60s!) Reichl met in an integrated bar -- one of two in the college town of Ann Arbor; and on and on through school in Montreal and a cheap trip to the Middle East ... Such characters, and such colorful verbal drawings of them, like a piquant side dish, chapter after chapter.

Memoir can be such a yawner, but not when it's Ruth Reichl telling the tale!
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Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood
Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

dwrites, September 19, 2011

Atwood's prose in this writer's writer book is easy, that is to say, friendly. Cozy, even. But to breeze over the chapters, culled from a series of lectures Atwood gave at Cambridge, is to miss some delicious morsels that taste as universal and esoteric at the same moment as Atwood's fiction does.

An intriguing catalog in the introduction tells us that writers -- ones we would know, it is hinted -- say that they write "... To set down the past before it is forgotten. To excavate the past *because* it has been forgotten ... To thumb my nose at death ... To attract the love of a beautiful woman ..." and so on, for two and a half pages.

Do two souls inhabit the writer? Are we jekyll and hyde? Which is the "real" writer? How have we reacted over centuries, millennia, to censorship, and where does that response land us? Are we some alien creatures, or is that impression, well, impressed upon us from without? What to do with all those ideas? What to do with all those questions about our ideas?

Atwood brings her own history to the making of this book: A Canadian writer starting out when no Canadian writers existed in the main to show the way, riding the eventual tide and being uniquely Atwood. Stunning theoretical stuff, if you can imagine such a thing (remember this is "friendly" language), purposeful biographical points tucked into the warp and weft of the whole, in all, a fine read with the potential to ignite any mind already simmering.
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Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Bless Me, Ultima

dwrites, September 1, 2011

Beautiful, mysterious tensions and collisions between earth and sea, God and the gods, innocence and knowledge, good and something other than good abound in this novel of a young Chicano in New Mexico in the days during and just after World War II. An incredibly-realized first novel, now nearly 50 years old, by the author some consider the Father of Chicano Literature. The point of view is that of a seven year-old boy entering school and the larger community from his family's life on the plains, as an old woman known to make cures in the old ways comes to live with his family and teaches him what she knows. It's a rough couple of years that passes, with the protagonist seeing more death and ugliness than perhaps a young boy ought to witness first-hand. Antonio tries to grapple with these events through the strong Catholic religion he's growing into, yet also through the paganistic sensibilities of some of his young cohorts, and eventually through the all-knowing eyes of La Curandera herself, as he comes to understand that all things are not knowable, at least not all by way of the same cosmic answers. Opened a world completely unknown to me, and yet is entirely accessible, sympathetic, relevant. If not for some very slight ragged edges, this would rate a 5 for me.
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Tears of the Giraffe by A. Robert Smith
Tears of the Giraffe

dwrites, August 14, 2011

In a time when it seems all the rage to create scarcely-sympathetic characters, the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is like breathing clean air. Plot seems to hardly matter in the series, though without one we would not be the fortunate recipients of Precious Ramotswe's gentle and traditional wisdom. In Tears of the Giraffe Mma Ramotswe solves, among others, the mystery of what happened to a young American who disappeared in Botswana years ago, and as always, the gracious repercussions of her work touch and unite numerous people. Mma Ramotswe's household increases by two, a surprise to her: one of the two is not Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, to whom she is engaged to be married.

There is suspense and the habitation of a country and culture far away, there are lessons of morality that are not moralistic, there are deeply three-dimensional characters living in these pages, and humor and surprise and relief. An excellent read.
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