Channeling Captain Cook Across the Pacific


Tony Horwitz has written a funny and yet sobering book about the explorations of Captain Cook.  Blue Latitudes — Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before combines historical research into Captain Cook and his voyages with a sort of drunken buddy attempt to trace Cook’s travels.  Horwitz, together with a frequently drunk old friend, tries to visit virtually everywhere Cook has gone.  It isn’t clear what Horwitz expected when he visited these places, but what he finds are a whole bunch of island nations and communities that haven’t fared very well since Cook’s visits.  Even in places such as Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii that have quite well, Cook is no hero.  It isn’t really surprising that Cook is frequently regarded more as a villain than an intrepid adventurer.  Horwitz does a great job of getting people to talk to him and learning to appreciate how they might react negatively to certain questions.  With far less humor, it seems that Cook also demonstrated good people skills from time to time.

The fact remains that for many people, being “found” by Captain Cook wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  There is ongoing, bitter resentment.  Of course, as some of the people Horwitz visits acknowledge, if it hadn’t been Captain Cook, surely some other Westerner would have come and ruined their paradise.

Although the premise of this book sounds fun and romantic, the reality is often cynical populations who haven’t fared very well.  The book has a lot of strengths  —  I learned an almost numbing amount about Captain Cook, the author is a good and educable listener, and some of the author’s sailing in bad weather adventures are tremendously exciting and absolutely terrifying.  The Aleutian experience was particularly alarming.  Of course, as the author is careful to point out, any sailing he does in the course of this book is pretty much a luxury cruise compared to what Cook endured.

At times I did feel the story bogged down.  This may be in part because Cook wasn’t all that fascinating or romantic a person.  He doggedly organized amazing explorations and he recorded what he saw in matter-of-fact terms.  Of course he had to be highly imaginative to even conceive of and pursue his voyages, and yet he didn’t seem nearly as excited about it as one would have liked him to be.  In the end, the author’s careful piecing together of the miscalculations on Hawaii that led to Cook’s death provided the most interesting information about Cook.  In a way that is sad, because the author is careful to show that in his last days Cook was not  acting with his normal patience and acute awareness of his circumstances.

This is a great book for fans of exploration and Captain Cook.  Also, I can’t think of anywhere to get this information delivered so well and with such a clear appreciation of its application to current times.


The Immigrant Experience — Growing Up Asian American


Growing up Asian American – Stories of Childhood, Adolescence and Coming of Age in America from the 1800s to the 1990s,  edited and with an introduction by Maria Hong, is a collection of 33 pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Asian American immigrant experience in America.   The stories share many themes  —  concerns about parents’ expectations, awareness that parents don’t quite fit in or don’t quite get what is going on. and then the writers’ own concerns about how to get along.  A number of the writers feel considerable stress between their families’ insular worlds and their own experiences in American schools and communities.  There are also cringing moments when the writers and their families face discrimination, both blatant and (hopefully) unintended.  These stories don’t have many happy, cohesive families.  Instead, most of the writers come across as loners who have been thrust into an alien environment without the proper tools for survival.

This book is highly recommended.  The sheer volume (33) of the pieces underscores the fact that, regardless of immigration status or economic circumstances, it can be really tough to move to this country and that it can be uniquely traumatic for children.

Invisible City — A Murder Mystery Set within Brooklyn’s Hasidic Community


Julia Dahl’s Invisible City provides a fascinating look into the Ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn.  Rebekah Roberts is a brand new stringer reporter for a New York tabloid.  She is thrilled to have a newspaper job so soon after graduating from college in Florida.  New York is pretty new to her, but she is learning fast.  One of the stories she is sent to cover ends up involving a suspicious death in New York’s Hasidic community.  Rebekah has some tenuous ties to the Jewish community and is swept into covering a fast-breaking story that was supposed to remain under wraps.  There are lots of suspenseful moments and some interesting plot twists, but the theme that moves the book along is the tension felt by members of the Ultra-Orthodox community who can’t or won’t go with the program.  Rebekah Roberts is a sympathetic character who is brave and curious, even as she makes rookie mistakes.  Add to that her own back story and conflicted feelings about the demands of the Hasidic community, and Julia Dahl provides an excellent crime novel.

I am happy to recommend this book and to report that the author has already written a second book in what looks to be a thoughtful and intelligent series.

Small Mercies — A Beautiful, Thoughtful Novel


Eddie Joyce’s first novel, Small Mercies, is an absolute gem.  The premise is an extended family dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11/2001.  The rich background of a Staten Island neighborhood and a family’s own history support this story of a family’s struggles to deal with the loss of a son.  This isn’t a soggy tearjerker, and there are no larger-than-life heroes.  Instead, we get to read about real people who sometimes rise to the occasion and sometimes don’t.  By and large they are not at each other’s throats, but they often aren’t really connecting either.

The various family members have done some rotten things and been horribly selfish at times and yet they compel the reader’s empathy.  This isn’t one of those books where the reader is constantly imploring selfish, misguided characters to get their act together.  Instead, the tragedy of losing a beloved son and brother in a horrific attack makes the reader exercise just a little more patience and try just a little bit harder to empathize with the characters’ mistakes.  Background stories of the family’s history are richly seeded throughout the book and add texture to the family’s current struggles.

The prose is clear and simple.   Gail, the mother, is the centerpiece.  She is a rock, except when she’s not.  As demonstrated by the flashbacks to their own courtship and early marriage, Gail and Michael, her husband, have a marriage that has withstood a certain amount of bone-headed behavior on both sides.  You’d like Gail and Michael to really comfort each other, but their griefs are separate.  They understand each other and they have come to understand what they can and cannot expect.  Whether they like it or not, they hold it together in their own ways.

This is a family novel.  The author refrains from assigning saint and sinner roles.  Everyone messes up, some more than others.   All of the characters have some good in them and  yet they can be real self-centered jerks.  By the end of the book, everyone is afforded his or her own individual claim to the reader’s interest and sympathy.  This isn’t a mythical heroic family — instead it is a highly recognizable family comprised of individuals with a common history and mutual responsibilities.  Even when things aren’t going well and a bleak sorrow overwhelms them, there is a momentum.  Things will continue to happen to this family, and some of those things will be good.

I loved this book.


African American Women Suffragettes

The subject covered by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, is painful.  Simply put, during the struggle for women’s suffrage, white women frequently ignored or even hijacked African American women’s equally compelling efforts to secure the vote.  To make matters worse, the history of women’s suffrage in this country has pretty erased the contributions of African American women, beginning with Harriet Tubman and continuing on through succeeding generations.   In addition to blatant racism, white suffragettes repeatedly “forgot” their African American sisters or made strategic decisions to back-burner their cause so as not to downplay the possibility that women’s suffrage would enfranchise African American women, as well as white women.  The South was a particular problem, but many white suffragettes north of the Mason-Dixon Line were little better.  Racists need not have worried too much about an onslaught of African American women voters, because even when these women won the constitutional right to vote through the 19th Amendment, numerous obstacles were thrown in their path and often precluded them from voting.

It should be noted that a number of African American men of the time were quite dismissive of their sisters’ rights.  As repeatedly emphasized throughout this book, African American women repeatedly faced dual discrimination  — on the basis of sex and race.  The chronicles of the Civil Rights movement during the latter half of the 20th Century reveal that the problem stubbornly persisted.   Strong and brilliant African American women who risked all in support of Civil Rights were frequently ignored and relegated to supporting roles.  As just two examples, African American women generally didn’t get to speak at rallies such as the March on Washington, and Diane Nash, one of the major heroes of the Civil Rights movement, is largely forgotten despite her courageous and savvy strategic contributions to Martin Luther King and others.  (This may be straying a bit from the point, but Diane Nash deserves to be remembered and honored.)

The Struggle for the Vote  isn’t particularly easy to read.  It is fairly short,but the narrative doesn’t flow.  The author is careful to cite original sources and to pore through lists of meeting attendees and committee members in order to record the names and contributions of those who would otherwise be forgotten.  This is important information, and the author is right to be specific.  The contribution of these women needs to be recorded and celebrated.    Terborg-Penn also writes from a strong point of view:  African American women were important contributors to the women’s suffrage movement and yet received little or no recognition for their efforts.

I do recommend this book.  As racial and sexual inequality continue to plague this country, it is a good reminder that neither issue can be meaningfully addressed in isolation from the other.



The Red Sparrow — A Cold War Thriller for Modern Times


Jason Mathews has written a Cold War thriller, Red Sparrow, that is set in modern times.  Not to worry, Putin is every bit as creepy a villain as those who were running the show before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The book was hard to put down and had a cast of very interesting and appealing characters in well-chosen settings.  There was a female hero, Dominika Egorova, and a lot of sexual tension in addition to the usual spy stuff.  While the sex advanced the story, it was sort of a shame that the Egorova was defined as a sexual object.  Why is it that all the sexual degradation was inflicted on the woman and only then was she allowed to prevail?  The answer is an integral part of the plot, but I couldn’t help wishing that this really interesting woman had been created without resort to to making her a beautiful victim of sadistic sexual abuse. This is a clever book, but it could have been just a little more original.  Writers find all sorts of ways to create male heroes who are not sexually abused and subjected to voyeuristic torments, so with a little more effort it ought to be possible to create women heroes with less predictable backgrounds.

Red Sparrow is the first in a series.  I like Matthew’s writing, so I am hoping that the next book will be less conventional.