Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: “The Last Dragonlord” By Joanne Bertin

Linden Rathan is a weredragon; the last one whose birth was sensed by the other weredragons or dragons.  This makes him the “Little One” even though he’s over six foot six tall and towers over everyone else at Dragonkeep.  The weredragons are called Dragonlords and they serve the local countries as neutral arbitrators and judges.  The queen of one of the local countries dies at the beginning the story and Linden is chosen as one of the three judges to go and sort out the regency debate.  Naturally, there is an evil wizard, plots to secure the regency, plots to destroy the Dragonlords, a love interest, a bard, and a couple of distractions.

Most of the setting is generic fantasy.  The weredragons are the interesting twist in the setting, and the story doesn’t get bogged down describing what they can and can’t do in any detail.

Despite being somewhat generic it is an enjoyable read, provided you can keep the four or five factions more or less straight.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review: “Good Omens” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Good Omens: A Narrative of Certsin Events occurring in the last eleven years of human history, in strict accordance as shall be shewn with: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter Compiled and edited, with Footnotes of an Educational Nature and Precepts for the Wise, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

The plot is thin; the characters mostly don’t change much and are mostly caricatures anyway; so pretty much the only reason to read this book is for the numerous jokes and witty writing.

Having said that this book is well worth reading when you’re in the mood for some clever jokes.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book Review: “My Bondage and My Freedom” by Frederick Douglass

This is an autobiography written by Frederick Douglass.  Yes the same Douglass whose earlier autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” was so important in the time before the Civil War.  It begins in the same place as the “Narrative”, but it tells the story in far greater detail.  It also extends beyond the “Narrative”, which is not surprising since it was first published ten years after the earlier work.  It therefore includes several reflections on racism in the North as well as the damage racism did to Southerners.  The last few sections are somewhat interesting in that they deal with his time becoming a publisher of an abolitionist periodical along with the reactions of the Garrisonites that he was associated with as a public speaker.  If it were not for the fact that it is more than 4 times as long as the “Narrative” I would be inclined to replace that earlier work with this one.  Douglass is a truly remarkable writer.  He knows how to write with style and power without becoming overly grandiose.

The Barnes & Noble Classics edition that I have also has extracts from some of Douglass’s speeches and letters.

The tale of his time as a slave is similar enough that I pass over it here and give a more detailed account of the last three chapters.  The “Narrative” ended with his first speech before abolitionists.  This was three years after escaping slavery.  He came to the attention of the organizers of the convention through preaching at his small Zion Methodist church in New Bedford.

In these chapters he points towards the way slavery corrupted even the abolitionists.  Initially he was excited to be working for the emancipation of colored people in America.  However, he was introduced as chattel, as a former piece of property, and always they asked him just for the facts of his life without any philosophy or moralizing.  His friends and companions, like Garrison, asked him to maintain a bit of the slave in his bearing and speech.  This was aimed at preventing Yankees from thinking he was an impostor.  It was also an attempt to keep him from growing.  Just as his old master, Thomas Auld, had been unable to constrain him, the Garrisonites were unable to prevent Douglass from growing and improving his speech, education, and bearing.  Eventually this led to the expected accusations and required the publishing of the “Narrative”.

However, having pointed out who he ran away from put Douglass in tremendous danger of being captured as a fugitive slave. This led to his trip to Great Britain, where he spent 21 months.  On the trip to Liverpool he was asked to give an anti-slavery speech, which prompted a small riot from the Louisianan and Georgian contingent on board.  Then when they got to Liverpool that same contingent went to the newspapers and drove further interest in Douglass.  In a letter to Garrison Douglass tells how he was often told “We don’t allow niggers in here” as he traveled in the northern states, but when he was in Dublin a benefactor took him to the government buildings and gave him a tour.  They ended up eating dinner with the Lord Mayor of Dublin.  Douglass offers the contrast.  In the free and democratic nation of the United States he was routinely treated as inferior, but in Great Britain none of the locals seemed to ever think he was inferior merely for the color of his skin.

While in Great Britain Douglass was embroiled in four controversies which served to bring him squarely before the British public.  The first was the mob on board the “Cambria” that was previously mentioned.  The second occurred when the Free Church of Scotland accepted money from slaveholders.  The third occurred when a number of Southern Evangelicals were in London joining with others to try to form an Evangelical Alliance that accepted and approved of slavery.  The fourth occurred when one of those same divines, Rev. Dr. Cox, got into a dispute with Douglass at the World’s Temperance Convention.  All of these helped him to put the moral question before the British people.  Then when Douglass started back to the United States he was, again, denied the right to access the Saloon on board the steamship and the cabin he was to have used was given to another.  This led to a final letter to the London Times and promptly to Cunard forbidding future discrimination on Cunard steamships.

Douglass also received funding to start his own periodical from some of his friends in Great Britain.  However, on returning to Boston he encountered an unexpected resistance.  His friends amongst the Garrisonite abolitionists counseled him not to start a paper at all.  They were sure that it would fail, as other black papers had, and they felt it would interfere with his work on the lecture circuit.  They also felt it was deeply absurd for a man only nine years free of slavery to become the editor of a paper.  This last is a point that resonates even today, for though most people acknowledge the equality of all people it is still not uncommon to hear claims that black folks are inherently inferior to white folks.  This fundamentally racist attitude was then held even by abolitionists and it is even now, over a hundred and fifty years later, to be found amongst the populace.

Douglass moved to Rochester in western New York.  He published his paper with plenty of success for eight years when this biography came out.  However, having gotten out from under Garrison’s wing he slowly abandoned certain of Garrison’s positions.  Garrison was for the dissolution of the Union so that the slave states would no longer be connected to the free states and he didn’t approve of using the franchise to push for more equality before the law.  After four years Douglass switched sides on both of these questions.  Freeing the slaves was precisely a matter to be decided by voting, and it was not particularly necessary for the abolition of slavery.

The last chapter also includes a number of anecdotes illustrating just how racist even the northern states were back in the 1850’s.

As I noted at the beginning of this review, this is an excellent book written by a man that is one of the finest writers and speakers I have encountered.  His work is worth studying for his tremendous insight and for his masterly rhetoric.  It is also worth reading as a reminder that adversity can be overcome, and a person can rise from the very lowest station to one of the highest with the aid of good hearted people if they will strive.  It is also a call for all people, even now, to work for justice and equality.