Brigdh (wordsofastory) wrote,
Brigdh
wordsofastory

Reading Wednesday

What did you just finish?
The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island by Mac Griswold. A fascinating piece of microhistory focused on a single family farm in Eastern Long Island. The Sylvester Manor, as it's now called, was first settled by an English-Dutch family in 1652, and the current house dates to the 1730s. And yet was still being lived in as a normal family home! Griswold, the author, literally stumbled over the house while rowing around Long Island and made friends with the current owners, eventually even convincing them to allow multiple seasons of archaeological excavation in their front yard. The book is based on those excavations, as well as historical research, family legends, and Griswold's own speciality as a landscape historian (she was particularly interested in how the various trees and shrubs came to the plantation). Although there's three centuries of history to cover, the focus is very much on the first generation of the family, with everyone later than 1801 getting short shrift. Which was fine by me, since that's the period I was most interested in. Griswold makes a valiant effort to put the focus on the enslaved Africans and Native Americans of the plantation, but inevitably there's simply many more documents and details available about the white masters. I think she does a good job with what she has to work with, and does produce some fascinating finds, but it's just not much in comparison to the European history. As is, sadly, so often the case.

Sylvester Manor was a northern provisioning plantation, which means that it grew the food, bred the horses, and crafted the barrels necessary for the running of their partnered sugar plantation down on Barbados. The history of Northern slavery has been mostly forgotten (or erased, depending on your perspective), and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating how closely tied together North and South were economically, rather than the antagonist perspective you get from many simplistic histories of the Civil War.

A good book, though I'm still searching for my one ideal history of NYC slavery.

(For a comparison, if you want to read just one book about slavery in the NYC area, I'd highly recommend this one over last week's New York Burning.)


The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker. Despite loving my two cats very much, and enjoying watching YouTube cat videos as much as any person on the internet, I am not actually one to read many books about cats. Everything from cozy cat mysteries to true-life inspirational cats turns me off. In fact, a cat on the cover is more likely to make me turn a book down than to pick it up. (I might make an exception for I Could Pee on This, and Other Poems by Cats.) And yet here I am, reading a book about cats!

The Lion in the Living Room is a pop-science book (very much in the style of Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell) about the history of cats. Her main topic is how they became domesticated – or if they even are domesticated – looking at the archaeology, biology, and history of humans' relationship with cats. She also covers topics from how good cats actually are at controlling rats and mice (spoiler: not very), Victorian cat shows, newly developed breeds, the impact of cats on the environment, the rise of the NTR (Neuter-Trap-Release) approach to controlling street cat populations, the history of the LolCat meme, toxoplasmosis (the parasite in cat's urine that might attract sufferers to cats), Egyptian religion, and interviews internet star Lil Bub. There's a ton of fun and fascinating facts sprinkled throughout the book. I particularly liked it for its straightforward scientific approach to cats, without much fluffiness, which unfortunately seems to be causing many negative reviews (I guess if being told that housecats are massively contributing to the extinction of birds and small mammals hurts your feelings, this may not be the book for you. Though I don't know how any reasonably well-informed adult doesn't already know that).

Highly recommended for a breezy look at the history and science of cats.


The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn. A novel I'd been stumbling across in different bookstores for the last several months, always being intrigued by the cover but never quite enough to buy it. And then I found it for $2 in a second-hand store and finally brought it home.

Well, I'm glad I only paid $2.

In 1999, Jacob Thacker is a doctor with the South Carolina Medical College, currently stuck on administrative duty as he recovers from a Xanax addiction. This past makes it easy for the Dean to blackmail him when a construction team uncovers dozens of human skeletons in the college's basement. Jacob is ordered to cover it up without the press finding out, even if that means reburying the bodies somewhere secret.

In alternating chapters the book jumps back to the 1850s and 60s to tell the story of Nemo Johnston, first enslaved and then free, who is also employed by the South Carolina Medical College. The school's very first Dean used Nemo as 'resurrectionist', a grave robber with the task of procuring dead bodies, mostly of other black men and women, for the school's students to practice on. Nemo is, of course, the source of the skeletons Jacob is being forced to deal with.

Jacob is kind of a terrible human being. He refers to his partner as a "woman in a man's world" because she's a lawyer; describes an ethnically Japanese coworker in this way: "Janice is as American as he is, but he can never help feeling that there is some reserve of samurai in her, some native allegiance passed down in the genes, that views him as the foreigner every time they meet"; and, when he first learns about the existence of Nemo, calls him "the poor, dumb bastard". It was around that last line when I decided that the author was deliberately writing Jacob as a dick, and perhaps that is the case since Jacob's entire plotline revolves around gaining enough courage and empathy to not accede to the cover-up. But since it takes being fired, blackballed, and rescued from his ensuing suicidal despair to consider that, hey, maybe the current African-American community has a right to their ancestors' remains!, I think the author drastically underestimated how incredibly horrible Jacob comes off as.

Even if that wasn't the case, Nemo's story is simply vastly more interesting than Jacob's. Unfortunately he gets much less page time and not really a plot arc so much as a series of random vignettes at different times of his life. At one point he gets elevated to the role of teacher – a black professor of a medical college! in the South! before the Civil War! – but how this came about or his feelings regarding it are never explained. And some of what little page time he gets is taken up by the story of white nurse Sara Thacker, who (spoiler, I suppose, but it's super obvious from page one) turns out to be Jacob's great-great-grandmother. I think Guinn was trying to do something about class or women's rights with this idea, but the plotline honestly is so thin that it feels like a last-minute addition which never got fleshed out enough to be worthwhile. At least Nemo doesn't turn out to be Jacob's great-great-grandfather, because I honestly spent at least fifty pages terrified that a tragic mulatto novel had somehow been published in 2014.

Overall: interesting premise, terrible execution.


Mount TBR update: 1 added this week (The Resurrectionist) bringing me up to 4! Oh, man, I am not making a dent in my massive mountain.

What are you currently reading?
The Last Woman Standing by Thelma Adams. A Netgalley novel about the wife of Wyatt Earp.

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Tags: bookblogging
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