Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957)


Title: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
Release Date: March 30, 1957
Director: George Seaton
Production Company: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

For 63 years, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg have been introduced to the Historic Area with this docudrama account of the years leading up to the Revolutionary War in Virginia.  I first saw in 1985 at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center and later on hotel tv loops, and now I got to revisit it on a Zoom presentation from the Williamsburg Regional Library (which included a slide presentation on the making of the film and its restoration).  This movie is short, and a bit corny, but I maintain a stupid love for it that I cannot explain.

A young Jack Lord stars as John Fry, a wealthy plantation owner who serves in the Virginia legislature in the 1760s and 1770s.  He interacts with famous historical figures like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington as well as less famous historical figures like William Byrd III, John Randolph, and George Wythe.  The movie expertly depicts the series of incidents that precipitated the Revolution and the vote for Independence, and through Fry we see the gradual transition of someone from being a loyal British subject to supporting independence.  The movie also offers an introduction to the many sites in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, especially when Fry gives a tour of the city to his family.

The movie does fail from a social history perspective, as views of historical events outside of Fry’s patriarchal, slave-owning planter class are kept to the margins.  Nevertheless, the movie packs in a lot of historical detail in 37 minutes.  And it does it with a score by Bernard Herrmann (of Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver fame) and in beautiful technicolor.  When I worked at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1990s, I frequently had people ask if I starred in this movie which demonstrates that the movie doesn’t look like it was made 16 years before I was born and that these people did not watch Hawaii 5-0.

Can You Spot the Difference?

Jack Lord
Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All these years later, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot remains “ever the best!”

Rating: *****

25 Years Ago Today: I Graduate From College


On May 14, 1995, I completed four years of undergraduate education at the College of William & Mary in Virginia (that is its official name).  In many ways, it feels like yesterday as the years since I went to college have gone by much faster than the years leading up to college.  And yet, I also feel that I have changed quite a bit in the intervening years.

Me with W&M icon Ernestine Jackson.

I was so anxious then but more confident in myself now.  Conversely, I was more social then but much more comfortable spending time alone now.  Even when it comes to learning, I look back and am appalled at how slapdash I was in studying and research. And yet I learned things at the time that I could expound upon at length, that I can’t remember anything about now. Oh, and that whole thing about getting more conservative as you get older? Not true.  I’ve moved much farther to the Left as I’ve become increasingly cognizant of the woes of the world.

A very wet but memorable procession across campus.

Anyhow, here is what I remember about that Sunday (which was also Mother’s Day) when I officially became a college graduate:

  • It rained.  On the traditional walk across campus from the William & Mary’s historic Wren Building to the William & Mary Hall arena, the heavens unleashed a deluge of biblical proportions.  Graduation gowns provide absolutely no protection from the rain.
  • We were warned about increased security because of our commencement speaker (see below), but no one really checked us at all.
  • Former President George Bush spoke.  I’ve always been grateful that he kept his remarks short, not least because it was uncomfortable sitting in damp robes.  He mentioned “a kinder, gentler nation” and “a thousand points of light,” castigated the NRA (to great cheers, even in Virginia), and told a joke about a long commencement speech at Yale. In this yarn the speaker expounded on a word starting with each letter in YALE for 30 minutes each.  The punchline is a student praying to “thank God I didn’t go to The College of William & Mary in Virginia).
  • After the main ceremony, we went to the diploma ceremonies hosted by each discipline. I double-majored, and chose to receive my diploma at the English department ceremony rather than History (I can’t remember why, but it was a good choice, because my friend who went to History said they bungled the ceremony).
  • My mother hosted a reception for friends and families.  My sister had too much punch and introduced herself as my brother.

And that’s about all I can remember about that day. I was a college graduate.  Four months later I started working as an historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. Three years later I moved to Boston.  Five years later I started working in a library.  Nine years later I received a master’s degree in Library and Information Science.  Ten years later I got married.  Twelve years later I became a Dad.  Sixteen years later I had two kids.  And now, here we are twenty-five years later!

Related Posts:

Book Review: An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole


Author: Alyssa Cole
Title
: An Extraordinary Union
Publication Info: New York, NY : Kensington Books, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Set in the early days of the American Civil War in Richmond, Virginia, this historical romance tells the story of two spies for the Union working undercover behind enemy lines. Ellen Burns is a freed woman with a photographic memory who disguises herself as a mute slave and is hired out to the estate of a Confederate Senator. Malcolm McCall, a Scottish immigrant, works as a detective for the Pinkertons and poses as a Confederate soldier.  Together they uncover a Confederate plot to build an ironclad ship that could break the blockade of Southern ports.

Upon meeting and discovering that they’re working on the same side, the pair find a mutual attraction.  Malcolm is more overt in trying to act on that attraction, getting quite rude and handsy, which makes this book uncomfortable.  I appreciate that the author clearly will not let Malcolm coast as a “noble abolitionist” but calls out the power and privilege he has as a white man and how that is a threat to Ellen even when he has good intentions.  Both characters are well developed and interesting people.  Even a major antagonist, a loathsome Southern Belle named Susie McCaffrey, turns out to be more complex than she initially appears.

Of course, Ellen and Malcolm have lots and lots of sex, which I find awkwardly worded, but that may be just me.  Nevertheless, this is a well-written and engaging novel touching upon mystery, adventure, history, and social change.

Favorite Passages:

“Malcolm’s mind got muddled with anger thinking of how, in these lands, institutionalized sin was seen as a way of life that needed defending.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan


Author: Edmund S. Morgan
TitleAmerican Slavery, American Freedom
Narrator: Sean Pratt
Publication Info: Gildan Media, LLC (2013)
Summary/Review:
This book is not so much a history of slavery as it is an economic history of Colonial Virginia.  In a sense, understanding the conditions of Colonial Virginia is important to understanding how this English community came to adopt chattel slavery based on race.  But reading the book the topics vary far and wide from the concepts of slavery and their contrasts with the American ideals of freedom.  In short, it’s an interesting book albeit not necessarily the one I expected.
Recommended booksThe World They Made Together by Mechal Sobel and Colonial Virginia : a history by Warren M. Billings
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Horwitz
TitleMidnight Rising
NarratorDan Oreskes
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2011)
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite authors, presents a compelling history of John Brown and his followers and the keystone event of their raid on Harpers Ferry.  Brown’s life and family are discussed from childhood, to his involvement in Utopian abolition movements, and their targeted assassinations of pro-slavery advocates in “Bleeding Kansas.”  It’s eerie that the rhetoric and tactics of Brown and his followers while targeting the noble cause of abolition still resemble those of today’s Tea Party/2nd Amendment activists.The raid on Harpers Ferry took considerable planning and secrecy, although curiously it is uncertain what result Brown expected.  Did he really expect it to spark a nation-wide uprising, or did he intend a blood sacrifice?  Similarly, his changes in tactics during the raid itself contradict the planning.  What’s interesting is that while the raid was widely condemned, even by ardent abolitionists, Brown’s real influence came in his words and letters while in jail and on trial.  Even people who despised Brown and all he stood for came to admire his bravery and determination.  Horwitz’s book is an interesting account on this key event in American history and the ripples it would have throughout the country.

Recommended booksCloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Rating: ***1/2

Photopost: Colonial Virginia


Some of my favorite photos from our recent trip to Virginia are below.  See the complete photo album on my website.

View of Duke of Gloucester Street from the Capitol Building.

For Spring Break, my son Peter and I traveled to Virginia to visit my mother and play tourist at Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestowne, and Go-Karts Plus.  It was  three-day trip but it felt like we saw and learned a lot.  Now, I once lived in Williamsburg.  I attended the College of William & Mary, worked on an archaeological site as part of a field school, studied 18th-century furniture at the art museums, and then was an employee of Colonial Williamsburg for four years during my senior year of college and the years immediately afterwards.  So, these places are familiar to me.  But this was the first time I’d visited as just a plain old tourist in close to 25 years, and the first time I visited as a parent, sharing my enthusiasm for history with my son.

We actually visited few of the sites I actually worked at in my time as a historical interpreter as Peter was drawn more to the historic trades (which, ironically, I rarely had time to visit when I actually worked there).  For a place rooted in history, a lot has changed at Colonial Williamsburg.  The Charlton Coffehouse was reconstructed in recent years and we enjoyed the unexpected treat of a free serving of hot chocolate of an 18th-century recipe.  There’s also a daily event called Revolution in the Streets where the last block of Duke of Gloucester street is open only to paying guests and character interpreters perform a drama right in the middle of the crowd.  The story we witnessed was about a slave couple deciding to “jump the broom” to marry before the man was taken away to Richmond (for some reason I never learned).  We were among the witnesses to the jumping the broom ceremony which involved everyone participating in song and dance.  It is kind of cheesy and probably not 100% authentic, but I think it gets across the point of what daily life and choices were faced by ordinary people of the past.  I liked it better than the military reviews and speeches by great men that are more typical of living history performance.

A frisbee-catching dog on Palace Green.

 

Tulips blossom in the garden behind the Governor’s Palace.

 

“Fire!”

 

A team of oxen prepare to plow another row in the field.

 

Jumping the Broom (broom not in the picture).

 

Related Post: Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary

Beer Review: AleWerks Old Stitch


Beer: Old Stitch
BrewerAleWerks Brewing Company
Source: Draft
Rating: *** (7.2 of 10)
Comments:

The waiter at Chowning’s Tavern is a beer aficionado and set me up with a sample of another AleWerks beer (I left him a generous tip).  Old Stitch is brown with a cream-colored head. The nose is sweet and chocolatey, while the taste is nutty and well-balanced.  This is a tasty brew and I wish I’d had time to sample more.

 

Beer Review: AleWerks Dear Old Mum


Beer: Dear Old Mum
Brewer: AleWerks Brewing Company
Source: Draft
Rating: *** (7.6 of 10)
Comments: Visited Chowning’s Tavern at Colonial Williamsburg and enjoyed a mug of this locally-brewed, 18th-century recipe beer.  Dear Old Mum is unfiltered with a honey-color and not much head.  The scent is grainy and the flavor is spicy with a sweet, malt finish.  There’s an effervescent tingle on the tongue and the flavor grows stronger the more you drink.  Nice to see Williamsburg making a strong addition to the craft beer revolution.

 

Book Review: Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price


Author:  Reynolds Price
Title: Kate Vaiden
Publication Info:  Scribner (1986)
ISBN:  0689117876
Summary/Review:  This story set in rural North Carolina and later in Norfolk, Virginia is told from the perspective as a memoir titular character.  Kate’s parents die in a murder-suicide leaving Kate to be raised by relatives and to get involve in self-destructive sexual relationships at a young age.  The tone of the book is one of distance and indifference, perhaps appropriate to a narrator who has shut her self off from the world, but at the same time it is difficult to read a story that the narrator seems uninterested in telling.  What could be a good story of an interior struggle comes off as dull and unconvincing.

Recommended Books: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Rating:  *1/2