The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne

The Counter-Revolution of 1776History or polemic?

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In a simplified nutshell, Gerald Horne’s argument in this book is that the Revolution was in large measure a response to the colonists’ fear of London’s drive towards abolition of slavery.

Horne argues that slavery underpinned every aspect of the pre-1776 economy and as such was seen as crucial by the colonists, even while slave resistance was growing and slave revolts were becoming more common. The Royal African Company’s loss of monopoly over the slave trade in the late 17th century meant that free-traders had entered the slave markets, and the consequent uncontrolled rise in slave numbers led to fears that the slave owners did not have the capacity to stifle such resistance. While London was showing signs of beginning to think that the solution might lie in abolition, (with the added benefit that Africans could then be armed to assist in the ongoing turf wars with Spain and France on the American continent), the colonists feared a situation where Africans could be given some kind of equality or even superiority within the armed forces or, still worse, in civilian life. So, Horne argues, the Revolution was as much about maintaining the institution of the enslavement of Africans as achieving ‘liberty’ for ‘white’ colonists.

Horne makes two further assertions, both leading from this central argument. Firstly, he shows that Africans largely sided with Britain or one of the other European powers in the Revolution and prior to that had often looked to both Spain and France as possible liberators. From this, Horne argues that some Africans saw the war as not just a possible route to freedom but hoped that a victory could lead to some kind of league between themselves, the indigenous people of America and one of the European powers to form a government in place of the white colonists. Secondly, and leading on from that, much of the subsequent ill-treatment of Africans, as slaves or free citizens, can be attributed to them having picked the wrong side…

‘…the ongoing persecution of descendants of mainland enslaved Africans is – in part – a continuing expression of what tends to befall those who are defeated in bloody warfare: often they are subjected to a heinous collective punishment.’

Horne concludes therefore that the general view of the creation of the republic as a great leap forward for humanity is erroneous – an example of history being written by the winners, in this case the white colonists and their descendants.

self-evident truths

On the whole, I found Horne’s arguments partially but not wholly convincing. The book is a strange mix of history and polemic, written by someone who frequently lets his anger show through in the language he chooses to use – ‘…profit-hungry settlers were willing to sell the rope that might be used to encircle their pasty necks’, ‘the supposed trailblazing republic and its allegedly wondrous constitution’ etc; while his desire to avoid the use of the words ‘slaves’ and ‘black’ leads him at points into rather fanciful terminology, my favourites being ‘men of ebony’ and ‘the melanin rich’.

When reading a history of a period of which one has very little existing knowledge, written by a historian unknown to one, the challenge is to decide how much confidence to have in the author’s interpretation of the facts. Really the only way I can ever think to do this is to see what the author says about a subject I do know a little about. Very early on in the book, Horne talks about the influx of Scots to the colonies, and his description of the causes and effects of the Jacobite rebellions was so over-simplified and frankly misleading that it left me gasping and gaping. I was left feeling, therefore, that I would have to take many of Horne’s interpretations with a large dose of scepticism. I also felt strongly that, while obviously Horne was speaking specifically about the impact of slavery, he failed to give enough emphasis to the other causes that combined to bring about the Revolution; and I felt this tunnel-vision approach weakened his argument rather than strengthening it.

The style of writing is somewhat clumsy at times and Horne repeats the same information again and again throughout. He constantly jumps backwards and forwards in time rather than taking a linear approach. And he often refers to places or incidents without clarifying them, which can be problematic for a reader without an existing familiarity with the period and locations. All of these factors combined to make this a book that I somewhat struggled through rather than enjoyed.

Gerald Horne
Gerald Horne

However, despite all of these problems, I still felt that there was a basic validity in much of what Horne was saying, in particular with regards to his main argument. Certainly worth reading to understand why he has extrapolated the conclusions that he has from that, but should perhaps be treated with the extra caution that applies to polemic rather than history.

Gerald Horne is the Moores Professor of History & African American Studies at the University of Houston, and has published over thirty books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, NYU Press.

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Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

telegraph avenue“…he called what he played ‘Brokeland Creole’.”
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There are so many reasons for me to dislike this book. It’s relentlessly stuffed with references to American pop culture of the seventies – jazz, soul, funk – kung fu movies – blaxploitation – most of which were lost on me. (Though I got the Star Trek references!) It’s full of tricksy writing techniques and stunts, such as the cameo appearance of a pre-presidential Barack Obama. And it’s jam-packed with language that would make a docker blush.

But…but…it’s brilliantly written. Set in Oakland, California, I couldn’t decide whether Chabon is describing this piece of America as it really is or creating it anew, but either way he does it with such vividness and exuberance that it becomes a completely realised world with a past, present and uncertain future. There are issues of race, sexuality and gender here, all handled with a deft touch and a pleasing sense of optimism. One of Chabon’s most effective tricks is not to tell the reader straight out in the early part of the book which characters are black or white, but to leave us to gradually work it out from indirect references: a device that allows him to show the sameness of people rather than the differences and forces the reader to get to know them without letting preconceptions creep in.

“My God,” he said. “Please tell me you aren’t listening to ‘Kansas.’”

There was a small prog bin at Brokeland, but it spurned the pinnacles and palisades in favor of the dense British thickets, swarms of German umlauts. Wander into Brokeland hoping to sell a copy of ‘Point of No Return’ or, say, ‘Brain Salad Surgery’ (Manticore, 1973), they would need a Shop-Vac to hose up your ashes.

There is a huge cast of characters but we are mainly concerned with Archy and Nat, co-owners of Brokeland, a shop specialising in vinyl records, its existence threatened by the proposed building of a new megastore; their partners, Gwen and Aviva, who work together as midwives carrying out home-births – Gwen herself being massively pregnant too; and their teenage sons, Julie and Titus, on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and enthusiastically exploring their new-found sexuality. And then there’s Luther, Archy’s father, ex-star of ‘70s kung fu movies, ex-drug addict, down and almost out, but still dreaming of the comeback.

Michael Chabon (
Michael Chabon

The plot is slight, based around Luther’s past, the survival of the shop and the problems of the midwifery practice. Instead, the book is strongly character-driven. There are no heroes and very few total villains here – mainly just flawed people trying on the whole to do their best, if only they could work out what that was. The relationships are the important thing: fathers and sons, marriages and lovers, friendships and shared histories that bind the community into one diverse, often divided, but ultimately cohesive whole. And Chabon’s characterisation is warm and affectionate, sometimes moving, often funny.

“I don’t drink…” Archy said, and stopped. He hated how this sounded whenever he found himself obliged to say it. Lord knew he would not relish the prospective company of some mope-ass m*********** who flew that grim motto from his flagpole. “…alcohol,” he added. Only making it worse, the stickler for detail, ready to come out with a complete list of beverages he was willing to consume. Next came the weak effort to redeem himself by offering a suggestion of past indulgence: “Anymore.” Finally, the slide into unwanted medical disclosure: “Bad belly.”

But above all it’s the language and the writing that create the magic here – Chabon gives a virtuoso performance and the tricks are performed brilliantly, (including the unbelievably soaring sentence that lasts for 11 pages, with every word precisely placed, flying over the whole community and dropping in and out of every character’s life). There is an incredible wordiness about the book, one word never used when fifty could do, but the words take on a rhythm and life of their own and become almost mesmeric after a while. I found I was often pausing to appreciate and applaud the sheer skill of the performance. And, for most of the time, I could silence the small voice inside my head that was telling me that, underneath the dazzle and razzmatazz, nothing much was happening and nothing profound was being said…

Wonderfully written and flamboyantly entertaining, the sheer joy of watching a master wordsmith ply his trade almost outweighs the underlying lack of substance, but ultimately this novel just misses being truly great – though it’s so impressively done it takes a while to notice that. And although the destination may be a bit disappointing, the journey is breathtaking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Calico Joe by John Grisham

‘Baseball is a game of failure…’

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calico joeIn a departure from his usual legal thrillers, Grisham here gives us a book about the world of baseball. The first person narrator is Paul Tracey, whose father, Warren, was a pitcher for the Mets in 1973 in the same season as Joe Castle, the Calico Joe of the title, was breaking all records as a rookie player with the Cubs. Warren is now dying and as Paul travels to see him, he tells us about his childhood, his hero-worship for Joe and why his relationship with Warren reached breaking point.

Normally I am a big fan of Grisham but really, there are limits. Firstly it is very short and yet the plot, such as it is, is so slight as to barely maintain interest to the end. Instead the book is filled with extremely detailed descriptions of imaginary baseball games, so detailed that Grisham felt it necessary to give what he calls a summary of the basics of the game. This ‘summary’ runs to 13% of the entire Kindle book and was so dull that I gave up halfway through, deciding to trust that the book would make sense even if I didn’t know what a drag bunt or a pick-off might be. By about the fourth chapter, I was so bored that I was speed-reading through the innings by innings match descriptions that fill easily half the book dropping back in whenever it looked like the plot might move along a little. However, the plot was so uninteresting and clichéd and the characterisation so superficial that it did not make up for all the rest.


I would have given this book 2 stars but I recognise some people will be more interested in baseball and perhaps in interminable scoring statistics, even imaginary ones, than I and so have upped it to an extremely generous 3. Grisham says in his introduction ‘Baseball is a game of failures’. Unfortunately I feel this self-indulgent book is an example of that. Here’s hoping Grisham returns to form (and the legal world) in his next novel.

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

mark twain delphiA glittering hero…

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Set in Missouri sometime around the 1830s, Twain gives us a joyous romp through the lives of some of the boys, and even a couple of the pesky girls, growing up in the small town of St Petersburg. This is a world long, long before health and safety and overprotective parents where, when they’re not being forced to attend school or Sunday School, the boys can let both their bodies and their imaginations run wild –and oh, how they do! Tom is a natural leader – the one with the imagination and, I suspect, a liking for sensationalist pulp fiction. So when the boys aren’t being pirates, that’s only because they’re planning on how to become robbers or deciding who should be Robin Hood and who the Sheriff of Nottingham.

“…Tom said “Where this arrow falls, there bury poor Robin Hood under the greenwood tree.” Then he shot the arrow and fell back and would have died, but he lit on a nettle and sprang up too gaily for a corpse.”

It’s during a midnight trip to the graveyard (to throw a dead cat after the devils, obviously) that Tom and the little vagabond Huck Finn witness the horrific crime that provides the running storyline and the darker edge to the book. Scared that they’ll be killed if they tell what they saw, the boys can’t avoid feeling guilty when the wrong man is arrested and about to be hanged. But fortunately there’s always romance to take Tom’s mind off things…

“Say, Becky, was you ever engaged?”
“What’s that?”
“Why, engaged to be married.”
“Would you like to?”
“I reckon so. I don’t know. What is it like?”
“Like? Why it ain’t like anything. You only just tell a boy you won’t ever have anybody but him, ever ever ever, and then you kiss and that’s all. Anybody can do it.”
“Kiss? What do you kiss for?”
“Why, that, you know, is to – well, they always do that.”

TomSawyer-006A wonderfully warm-hearted book, Twain’s gently humorous and affectionate portrayal of the children is stopped from descending into sentimentality by his sly ridicule of the customs and manners of society, as seen through the microcosm of this small town. No-one is safe from his gaze, however respectable a position they may hold – not the poor minister as the boredom of his sermon is brightened for the boys by the advent of an unruly poodle, not the unfortunate teacher who must pay handsomely with the loss of his dignity for the crime of making the boys study. The boys’ belief in all kinds of old wives’ tales provides plenty of fun while allowing Twain to indulge in some gentle mockery of superstition. And Huck’s views on attempts to turn him into a respectable child give Twain the opportunity to poke fun at the restrictions polite society forces on itself…

“Well, I’d got to talk so nice it wasn’t no comfort – I’d got to go up in the attic and rip out awhile, every day, to git a taste in my mouth, or I’d a died, Tom. The widder wouldn’t let me smoke; she wouldn’t let me yell, she wouldn’t let me gape, nor stretch, not scratch, before folks -” (Then with a spasm of special irritation and injury) – “And dad fetch it, she prayed all the time!”

I found myself smiling throughout, frequently laughing aloud and occasionally gasping as Twain would suddenly throw Tom and his friends into danger and fear. I read this book when I was a young teenager and remembered enjoying it for the adventures, but as an adult I got much more out of Twain’s sneaky sideways swipes at society in general. The writing is wonderful – almost goes without saying – and greatly enhanced by the masterly use of dialect and idiom. Funny, insightful and hugely entertaining – a true classic.

“The minister gave out the hymn, and read it through with a relish, in a peculiar style that was much admired in that part of the country. His voice began on a medium key and climbed steadily up till it reached a certain point, where it bore with strong emphasis upon the topmost word and then plunged down as if from a spring-board:

Shall I be car-ri-ed toe the skies, on flow’ry BEDS of ease,
Whilst others fight to win the prize, and sail thro’ BLOOD-y seas?”

PS – As a little aside, I couldn’t help making comparisons to my own childhood favourite Anne of Green Gables. The lack of parents, the imaginative child always falling accidentally into trouble, the school romance… Of course, Anne and her friends were just pesky girls, so behaved much, much better than these awful boys (and were much cleaner, generally speaking) but I did wonder if LM Montgomery had been influenced by this earlier book. And sometimes Twain’s observational drollery, like the quote above about the minister, reminded me strongly of Dickens in humorous vein…

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Decision Points by George W Bush

Some interesting insights…

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decision pointsBush has structured this book around separate strands of his presidency rather than giving a linear account. This is a successful device in that everything relating to a subject – for instance, the financial crisis – is together in one chapter making it easy to read the book in sections. And this is just as well, because sometimes the saccharin tone Bush employs means that, like rich cake, a little goes a long way.

The first couple of chapters cover Bush’s early life and career prior to becoming president. I know it’s traditional for memoirs to cover this period but I felt, as I usually do, that I was only really interested in the chapters relating to his time in power. In fact, I really struggled to get past the early part of the book. His description of his battle with alcohol, his journey towards deep Christian faith and his love for his family was so cloyingly sweet I nearly gave up.

But either persevere or jump straight to Chapter 3. Once Bush starts talking about the decisions made in his presidency the book becomes very readable. Of course it’s full of self-justification – nearly all memoirs are – but nonetheless it does give insights into the thinking that lay behind some of the major policy decisions of the last decade. It’s not the most in-depth political book and it shuffles pretty rapidly past some of the more awkward decisions like Guantanamo but you do get a sense that he didn’t take the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lightly and that, agree with him or not, he genuinely believed he was doing his best not just for the USA but also for the Middle East. As I read I wondered how many presidential memoirs have been so heavily weighted towards international affairs – prompted by 9/11 the Bush presidency was forced to transform the USA into an outward looking country and to assess the impact it has and could have in the rest of the world.

george w

I can’t say this book changed my views of any of the political decisions of the time, nor did I come out of it feeling that Bush was a secret intellectual, but I did find the chapters on foreign policy interesting and to some degree enlightening. And overall, apart from his unfortunate tendency to descend into pure schmaltz on occasion, I found it an enjoyable read. Recommended.

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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Absorbing and beautifully written…

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brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. Though told in the third person, we see through Eilis’ eyes as we get to know about her life in Ireland with the mother and sister she loves, with friends and roots in a community she has known all her life; then we follow her as she is transplanted to Brooklyn, where she has the support of the Irish community, still strongly under the sway of the Roman Catholic church, but where she is so far away from her family, friendless and emotionally alone.

‘The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice. Nonetheless, as she read them over and over, she forgot for a moment where she was and she could picture her mother in the kitchen taking her Basildon Bond notepad and her envelopes and setting out to write a proper letter with nothing crossed out.’

Tóibín’s prose is wonderful and his characterisation of Eilis is very convincing – a passive heroine from a time and a society when decisions were still made by parents and community, before the rebelliousness and individualism of the sixties had begun. Trying to please everyone, learning to hide her loneliness and homesickness, Eilis’ life is a small one – this is not a book full of dramatic plot twists and events; rather, it is a study of a gradual growing up as Eilis deals with the various changes that happen in her life and slowly starts to form her own opinions and make her own decisions.

brooklyn 2

The descriptions of the voyage to America, Eilis’ feelings of isolation and longing for her family, her gradual settling and her falling in love all ring very true. We see her at first lost amongst but then beginning to understand the various ethnicities that are gathered in Brooklyn, a sharp contrast to the monoculture of home. In particular, the passages relating to a bereavement and grief are beautifully written and enormously moving.

‘Eilis now wondered if there was any way she could return to the shop floor and stop this from having happened, or stop him from having told her. In the silence she almost asked Father Flood to go and not come into the store again like this, but she realized instantly how foolish that was. He was here. She had heard what he said. She could not put back time.’

As the book neared the end I found Eilis’ thoughts and actions became a little less convincing and they felt a little contrived towards paving the way for a neat conclusion. But this is a small criticism of a book that overall I found to be completely absorbing, beautifully written and a pleasure to read.

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The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

‘These are the times that try men’s souls.’

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‘Your failure is, I am persuaded, as certain as fate. America is above your reach…her independence neither rests upon your consent, nor can it be prevented by your arms. In short, you spend your substance in vain, and impoverish yourself without hope.’

Thomas Paine, “To the People of England,” 1774

the men who lost americaIn this scholarly but very accessible book, O’Shaughnessy takes the view that Britain’s loss was not inevitable, and that in most cases the commanders and political leaders were scapegoated for the failure. He does this by taking a biographical look at the main players, political and military, on the British side; and showing the constraints that contributed to their defeat.

As a non-historian, I make my usual disclaimer that I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the book. Prior to reading this, all I knew about the War of Independence was that for some reason the Americans took umbrage at being asked to pay for a cup of tea and decided a) to declare independence and b) to become coffee drinkers. O’Shaughnessy lets me off the hook of my own ignorance by pointing out that the Revolution hasn’t been highlighted in British syllabi over the years, since we tend to concentrate on our successes rather than our failures. He also makes the point that British historians have been less sympathetic than their American colleagues to the British leaders, although this is partly because many American historians believe, with Paine, that the British loss was inevitable.

I always enjoy biographical history and so the format of this book was perfect for me. Each section concentrates on one person (except for the Howe brothers, when O’Shaughnessy combines their stories). O’Shaughnessy tops and tails each biography with brief summaries of the person’s life and career before and after the war, but the bulk of each section concentrates on the involvement in the war itself. In each case, he explains the reasons behind any successes or failures and, as the book progresses, common themes emerge.

Lord George Germain by Romney
Lord George Germain
by Romney

The British system of government at the time led to divided responsibilities and thus to in-fighting between ambitious men. George III still had more power than a modern monarch would, especially in terms of patronage, and therefore interfered in the management of the war. The opposition was powerful and the government could never be sure of parliamentary support. There were budgetary constraints since Britain already had a high national debt. The distances involved led to continual problems with supplies and the supply chain, and for most of the war the British Navy (to my surprise) did not ‘rule the waves’ but indeed was inferior to the combined French/Spanish fleets it was facing. But perhaps most importantly of all, there was a belief that the rebels did not have the support of the majority of Americans and this led the British to place too much reliance on loyalist support which never materialised in the numbers anticipated. This belief persisted throughout despite the increasing evidence to the contrary.

I’m not sure that O’Shaughnessy convinced me that the British could have won the war. In fact, as I read, I became convinced that so many things would have had to be different to make winning a possibility that it actually surprised me that the commanders achieved the levels of success they did. So O’Shaughnessy certainly succeeded in his other aim – to show that the commanders as individuals have, on the whole, been unfairly blamed for the failures. (Except Sir George Rodney – Guilty! Guilty! Off with his head!!) As O’Shaughnessy puts it:

‘In 1778, Charles James Fox brilliantly predicted the fates of the generals who served in America. He argued that whomever the government sent out to command would suffer the same criticisms as their predecessors. They would either be accused of indolence, inactivity, or want of spirit, or of behaving like knights errant, roaming around in quest of adventure, acting too independently, and disobeying their instructions. He concluded that the generals had not miscarried for want of professional skill, bravery, or devotion to duty, “ but merely from being employed on a service, in which it was impossible to succeed.” They were set up to fail.’

The book is very well written, and is both informative and enjoyable. There are a generous number of colour plates, mainly of portraits of the leaders discussed. My only complaint is that the scope of the book means that, though I’m now much better informed about the British side of the war, I remain almost entirely ignorant of the American side, so I sincerely hope that O’Shaughnessy is working on a companion book on The Men Who Won.

Surrender at Yorktown by John Trumbull
Surrender at Yorktown
by John Trumbull

The Men Who Lost America were:

George III

Lord North – Prime Minister

The Howe brothers – General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe, the commanders of the British Army and Navy during the first half of the war.

General John Burgoyne – the general who surrendered at Saratoga

Lord George Germain – Secretary of State for America

Sir Henry Clinton – commander of the British Army during the second half of the war

Charles, Earl Cornwallis – who surrendered at Yorktown

Admiral Sir George Rodney – failed to provide adequate support to Cornwallis at Yorktown

John Montague, Earl of Sandwich – First Lord of the Admiralty, held responsible for the failures of the fleet.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru

‘More things in Heaven and Earth…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

gods without menBeautifully written, this novel takes us on a journey through time, where we meet a diverse cast of characters all of whose lives are affected in some way by the location in which they find themselves, the empty and mysterious Californian desert.

Each of the various tales is lovingly told and our sympathy is demanded for, and easily given to, each of the characters: from the original Native American inhabitants, to the Spanish missionary trying to bring Christianity to the ‘New World’, to the new-age followers of the UFO cult of the Ashtar Galactic Command, right up to the lost and lonely rock star of today. And our main sympathies lie with the present-day young couple, Jaz and Lisa, whose autistic son, Raj, mysteriously disappears during a trip to the desert – a disappearance that echoes earlier incidents in the history of this strange place. Through these interlinked stories, we are led into a maze of cultural heritage, belief systems and superstitions.

Hari Kunzru (
Hari Kunzru

I think this is a book that may mean different things to different readers. For me, it was about the search for faith – the desire for belief. The characters bring so many gods to the desert over the years, and it seems that the desert absorbs them and weaves them into its mystery. Each of the characters is fundamentally changed by their experiences in this place – their existing beliefs shaken by what happens to them there. But the book is not preaching a particular line – the overwhelming feeling left at the end is that, for the author as well as for some of the characters, the question of whether there is something beyond the rational remains unanswered, perhaps unanswerable.

This may make the book sound like a heavy read, but the wonderful prose, the fascinating tales, the occasional flashes of humour and, above all, the sympathetic characters all combine to make this a book to be both savoured and enjoyed.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Strays by Matthew Geyer

Flowing and assured…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

StraysThis is a quiet and rather lovely look at what happens to two people when they discover in mid-life that their marriage has lost its meaning for them. As we follow Barbara and Chase through the next year or so of their lives, we are also taken back in time to see how they became the people they are today – what events, what relationships shaped them. There is a ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ aspect to the book as the reader, along with the characters, wonders whether they will make their way back to each other with a new understanding and appreciation or will the reassessment that each is forced to make take them into new paths.

(Source: Wikimedia)
(Source: Wikimedia)
Although there is a strain of regret and nostalgia running through, the book reads very much like a coming of age tale as Chase and Barbara begin to face life as individuals, forming new friendships and interests and reviving old ones. Geyer’s writing style is flowing and assured, with an excellent use of descriptive language, and his characterisation is very strong. I felt as if I came to know these people and to care what happened to them. The other character that came through strongly is New York itself; Geyer’s observant eye brought the city’s cultural and artistic facets lovingly to life. I understand this is his first novel – I am looking forward very much to seeing how his work develops in the future. Recommended.

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Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations by Charlene Mires

Dividing the nation…

😐 😐 😐

Capital of the WorldIn this book, Mires shows the ridiculous lengths gone to by some small town and large city politicians to promote their towns as the site for the new UN organisation at the end of the Second World War. The decision having been made to site it in the US, mainly because of the huge scale of destruction in post-war Europe, towns of all sizes and prominence throughout the States began to vie with each other to become the ‘Capital of the World’. The UN played its part in whipping up this ‘boosterism’ by constantly changing its collective mind on what kind of site it wanted. As towns, cities and communities across the nation raced to put in their pitches, commonsense was frequently bypassed and denial of problems over race, gangsterism and lack of amenities ran rife. The government of the USA had decided to take a position of neutrality over the location, so it was left to the other nations to insist that the site must be somewhere where foreign delegates could get to with relative ease and where they were at least able to dine with each other regardless of their skin colour. Hence east, rather than west or south.

The final decision...
The final decision…
Very US-centric, perhaps this book would be of more interest to an American reader than this Brit. It is filled with portraits of mid-century local politicians from all over the USA, and detailed descriptions of their self-aggrandizing plans to be Capital of the World. Lengthy passages are given to each campaign and, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the people and places involved, I sometimes found it hard to maintain my interest. The book is clearly well-researched and is well written, and I felt the author did as good a job as possible with the material available. There were a few humorous moments as Mires told us of some of the excesses of the various campaigns and some interesting details about the historical backgrounds of some of the towns. But on the whole there was too much detail for my taste about the minutiae of some of the booster campaigns and the people involved in them. It may well be because of my own parochialism but as the search began to centre on the bigger cities, and in particular on New York, I found my interest steadily growing.

Overall, a well written account of a unique point in history, showing ‘boosterism’ at what may have been its peak, but probably mostly relevant to an American readership.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landState of the Union…

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Publication Date: 1st May 2013

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in freedom at eighteen is a fascist. Anyone who doesn’t believe in security at forty is a criminal.”

In this extraordinary book, Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results.

When the economic collapse strikes, Paul Krovik loses everything, including his family and the house that he built for them. He had planned to build a whole development but now the few completed houses stand, already decaying, on swampy land in the middle of an unfinished building site. Louise’s family had owned the land for generations until she was forced to sell to Paul and now Louise lives in her old house at the edge of the site. And now Nathaniel and Julie Noailles, with their young son Copley, are moving from their urban, socially liberal life in Boston to live in this suburban house in an unnamed town in the South. Unknown to them, Paul is living in the concealed basement, determined to get the house back…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are: Paul, whose father brought him up on quotations from Emerson, believes in individualism and apocalypse; Louise, descendant of slaves, guilty at losing the land they treasured, and hating Paul for destroying it; and the Noailles, a family whose veneer of liberalism hides dark secrets and is gradually eroded by fear and mistrust. Through their stories, Flanery shows us the stresses and tensions in a nation still dealing with the aftermath of terror and economic meltdown. The society he depicts is one where trust has broken down; where ultimate security is the goal regardless of the cost to personal freedom; where privacy is seen as an unaffordable luxury; and where the state is in the process of passing responsibility for social control into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable and profit-driven private sector.

The descriptions of the decaying house and the swampy land as the rain beats interminably down add to the air of oppressive menace and threat that builds throughout the book. And as events spiral, Flanery’s depiction of the psychological effects on each character is both convincing and disturbing, as love and trust turn gradually into suspicion and paranoia. This is a masterly, multi-layered book, which works on both levels – as a fine, slow-burning psychological thriller, and as a persuasive metaphor for a society in turmoil in response to huge events.

“If we are not in the final chapters of our history then we are at the end of a particular volume, unable to predict how further instalments may unfold.”

Is this the Great American Novel for this decade? As a Brit, I wouldn’t presume to decide that question but I’d certainly nominate it strongly for the shortlist. And, as a Brit, I feel I understand far more clearly where the American psyche is positioned after reading this, and it scares me. I wait with real interest for the reaction of American reviewers. Highly recommended.

NB This review is of a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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