15 August 2022

Book report

Posted by Callan Bentley

Solitary, by Albert Woodfox

A first-person account of spending 40+ years in solitary confinement. Woodfox recounts his youth in New Orleans poverty, turning to robbery, being arrested, and then sentenced to Angola, the notorious plantation-turned-prison in Louisiana. He escapes at one point to end up in New York, where he learns of the Black Panthers, and transforms from a shiftless ne’er-do-well to a politically active change agent. Eventually he gets returned to Angola. There is framed for the murder of a prison guard, and his sentence jumps from a few years to life behind bars. Because of his political inclinations, he is committed to solitary confinement, in a cell by himself for 23 hours of every day. He can speak to other prisoners in adjacent cells, but for the most part he is utterly isolated. Somehow he manages to not go insane, and begins reading and educating himself. Time passes, lawsuits come and go, in many cases against Woodfox due to malfeasance on the part of prison officials, and his misery is compounded. The degrading manner he is treated with would make anyone cringe with indignation. After his third decade, his case becomes known to advocates in the wider world, who see his solitary confinement as a stark case of cruel and unusual punishment, and they push to change the practice. Woodfox also gets a retrial, and after the majority of his life incarcerated, he is finally able to walk out of Angola. Woodfox passed away the week before last, a free man.

Rules of Civility and The Lincoln Highway, both by Amor Towles

With these two novels, I’ve exhausted all the published novels by Towles, which is an absolute shame, because he’s such a good writer. Each of these books (with A Gentleman in Moscow being the third) is its own unique creation, a universe unto itself. The details really don’t matter too much to me, but the care in writing about them is astounding, and each has satisfying plot twists that were unforeseen (by me, anyhow) but help to create a neat narrative arc. Rules of Civility was such a great book in terms of the universality of its central theme, adorned with the most delicious details. Lincoln Highway wasn’t quite as strong of a story in terms of how much it spoke to me, but it did feature narration from the point of view of numerous disparate characters, some of them trustworthy, some of them simple, and some of them caught up in their own self-justified mischief. The facility with which Towles moves the story along, jumping between these multiple points of view, is impressive. All these novels are great, and such a wonderful joy to read. Top-notch recommendations to each!

The Internal Enemy, by Alan Taylor

A history of Virginia (and Maryland) during war with the British, particularly the War of 1812, its antecedents and aftermath. The specific focus here is how the slavery-based society of the pre-Civil-War United States left the slaveholding whites in constant fear of a violent uprising from those they enslaved. The title of this masterful history comes from the fact that they were battling on two fronts: the “external enemy” of the British navy, but also the “internal enemy” of their slaves. The author, Alan Taylor, is a UVA professor, and he weaves a well-paced exploration of how the British cannily exploited the fears slaveholders adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay while undercutting their economic success simply by accepting runaway slaves. Those who successfully escaped were given asylum aboard the British vessels. Most were eventually resettled in Bermuda or Nova Scotia, but to the Tidewater and Piedmont Virginian plantation owners, their great fear was that their former slaves would come back and wreak vengeance upon them. Recurring are characters you’ve heard of (Thomas Jefferson, for instance, James Madison and James Monroe), but also a family of Virginia landowners and slave-holders who squabble internally about choices that pit the moral instinct of some against the fraught relationship with their creditors, and their fears of their violence coming due in reciprocity.

For Want of Wings, by Jill Hunting

This nonfiction book is essentially a family history that attempts to draw together two partially connected aspects of the author’s ancestors. First, there is a deep commitment to the abolition of slavery in association with the notorious abolitionist (or “domestic terrorist,” depending on whose perspective you take) John Brown. Second is an interest in paleontology, and discoveries made in the American West under the guidance on Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale. The expedition west is chronicled in as much detail as possible: the author’s great grandfather is a student of Marsh’s, and she explores his biography as well as what he and the rest of the group saw out in the wilds of Kansas with assiduous research and some imagination. The most significant find is Hesperornis, a toothed bird from the Cretaceous chalk, which becomes known and celebrated as a transitional fossil, validating the idea of organic evolution. That’s much of the book, but not all – What remains is the author’s account of visiting Kansas herself, and chatting with the people she meets about fossils, and sharing a bit of her own life story, and that of her daughter, one of the founders of 350.org. She attempts to draw these various strands together, heady with awareness of the contingencies that led to the present moment. There are a great many tangents in this book, which evoked for me the feeling I used to get (pre-e-mail) reading letters from friends. I think if I were the editor of such a book, I’d be tempted to trim those back a bit, but the effect of retaining them all is to create a sense of informal familiarity with the author.