The Casual Vacancy, a casual review

J.K. Rowling’s’ new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, is positively Faulknerian. No, I’m not talking about the length of her sentences, but in tone and characterization, it reminds me of his classics like Absolom, Absolom! Light in August, and The Sound and the Fury:

  • It takes place in a small town and exploits long-standing relationships among the town’s inhabitants
  • It deals with “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as WCF put it in his Nobel acceptance speech. And so many of them to deal with.
  • There are Snopeses, lots of them.
  • It’s really dark. Few people laugh, and when they do, it’s rarely a good sign.

Fiction is such a personal preference, so I hesitate to recommend specific works to other readers. As for me, I liked it, but then I like Faulkner a lot, too. And such contemporary noiristas as James Lee Burke. Rowling truly lives up to Faulkner’s imperative:

[Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.

Can Pagford be a 21st Century Jefferson and Yarvil the new Yoknapatawpha? She left enough threads hanging that it should be easy, if she wants to do it, to weave a new tale about them.  I, as a former resident of Jefferson, certainly hope she does.

Agiity and deception

Fighting for Honor
The history of African martial arts traditions in the Atlantic world
by T.J. Desch Obi
University of South Carolina Press, 2008
346 pages, including 124 pages of notes and bibliography

Reviewed by Chet Richards

Kum yali, kum buba tambe! (He is tricky, so I will win by being tricky, too!)

As a southerner of European ancestry, I had long wondered how slave owners kept control over their victims. On many plantations, slaves vastly outnumbered owners and overseers, and because of the hard nature of their work, many slaves were in much better physical conditions than their owners. Why didn’t the slaves revolt or simply leave?

It turns out that many did. Most Americans are familiar with the Underground Railroad and may even recall the Nat Turner Rebellion (1831), the Fugitive Slave Acts (1793 and 1850) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857). But there are a couple of other ways slaves used to preserve their honor and sometimes even their freedom. One of these was “maroonage,” where they would abandon their plantations and settle in the swamps, rugged hills and dense forests of the South. It has been estimated, for example, that the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina may have harbored maroon communities totaling perhaps 2,000 escaped slaves.

The other was simply to resist. As T. J. Obi meticulously documents in this study, Africans and their descendents brought with them an arsenal of well developed martial arts styles. These provided the basis for preserving honor withing the slave communities and even, on occasion, to resist vicious beatings by overseers.

There were two keys to making this work: deception, because an unarmed defender had to close with his attacker, and agility, to avoid weapons and complete the attack. Obi includes these under the label “tricknology.”

When fighting a white oppressor, the ideal was to strike a butting-style head blow and finish the fight before it even developed. … As such butts had to be delivered at close range to be effective, a fighter had to use trickery to close the distance under some innocuous disguise.  (p. 109)

Readers familiar with Boyd will immediately recognize the concept of “operating inside the OODA loop.”

The book itself is quite academic and heavily footnoted, reflecting its origins in doctoral research. That said, however, it’s not a heavy read and is packed with interesting tidbits. Did you know that maroon communities survive to this day in the mountains of Jamaica, where they won their freedom by successful resistance some 50 years before the official abolition of slavery in that colony? And slave societies developed all manner of methods to conceal their existence from their owners. In one area, for example, the message “weevils in the wheat” meant that overseers had discovered that a meeting was planned and so it was being postponed.

Perhaps the most fascinating conclusion of the book is that African martial arts techniques still survive in the Americas. Perhaps the best known example is the Brazilian capoiera, but Dr. Obi’s research on site in the low country of the Carolinas documents their existence in the Gullah communities and their descendents into the 21st century.

[You want agility? Check out this YouTube video of a capoiera demo. The kicks and sweeps from inverted positions are typical of Angolan fighting styles.]

Down the Sky

by W. Patrick Lang
FT Review by Chet Richards

Did you know that late in the Civil War, July 1864 to be exact, Lt. Gen Jubal Early and his Confederate army made it to within six miles of the White House, coming down from the Maryland side? Well inside the Beltway, as we say today.

Would you like to ride along? How about accompanying the Union counterstrike a few months later, when feisty Phil Sheridan’s famous ride turned the tables on Early and for all practical purposes eliminated his army as a fighting force? Want to know how the Confederates could have saved Ft. Fisher, which defended their last remaining port (and what really destroyed it after the battle)?

Still demand more? I don’t blame you — how about following a Confederate spy as he worms his way into the confidence of the President of the United States? Now, I have to tell you that the spy in question, Claude Devereux, is not a totally likeable person. What kind of man would cheat on his mistress, while also still sleeping with his wife? But spies are not like you and I, and Pat Lang should know. As one of the country’s premier spymasters, when it comes to intelligence, he knows whereof he speaks.

Down the Sky is Lang’s third in the “Strike the Tent” trilogy. Although he says that it stands alone, I think you’ll find the experience much more satisfying if you start with The Butcher’s Cleaver and proceed through Death Piled Hard to this one.  There are a lot of characters, and like in any good spy novel, they do a lot of confusing things. There is a list of characters in the back — bookmark it.

So you’ll get a great intelligence thriller, a vivid work of historical fiction, and a lot of maps and pictures of real people.  You’ll also get some insight into the motivations of the ordinary people of the period, particularly in the South, and including both blacks and whites. You’ll understand better why the poor farmers of the South — few of whom owned slaves — fought on, desperately, long after the Confederacy had any chance to achieve its goal of independence. People just don’t like to be occupied, a lesson we might pay more attention to today.

Is it good literature? I’ll tell you this: I downloaded it from iUniverse to my iPhone and read it on a recent trip to New York. Late into the night. When I was supposed to be preparing presentations. It works fine as an ePub on the iPhone, but a larger screen would make the maps more legible and cut fewer generals in half.