Friday, June 26, 2015

Richmond’s Hidden History is Just Beginning to Be Told

Guest blog by Benjamin Campbell, author of Richmond's Unhealed History. 

The received history of Virginia, as taught in our public and private schools, our museums, our public sites and monuments, and even in our universities, has had a strange, orthodox, doctrinal quality to it. Sometimes – often – it seems comprised of a few great men, a few great ideals, a few great monuments, a lot of street signs, and some commemorative stamps, repeated over and over. Everything else is seen as a footnote, if mentioned at all.

The theft of native lands and decimation of 90% of the population of pre-European Tsenacomoco is taught as an exciting colonial adventure. The enslavement, torture, sale, and resale of 90% of the first white Europeans brought to the colony from 1607 to 1650 is unmentioned. The exportation of all of London’s convicted felons to Virginia and Maryland during the 18th Century is unknown. The revolution which sent 50% of the population into slave labor is described as a successful birth of freedom. And the second largest slave market in America, from which 300,000 or more African Virginians were ripped from their families and shipped into slave labor camps, is buried underground, not even a footnote in approved textbooks.

It is not that the untold stories are completely unknown. They are just not known in Virginia, and never have been. Richmond’s slave market was well described in the London Illustrated News in the mid-19th century. It was described in an excellent chapter in Frederic Bancroft’s classic Slave Trading in the Old South, first published in 1931; in William Still’s The Underground Rail Road, published in 1872; in Eyre Crowe’s With Thackeray in America, published in 1892; and in Charles Emery Stevens’ Anthony Burns: A History, published in 1856. The stories of the earlier Virginia Colony are well-documented – everybody has the same documents – but they are told in a triumphant European way, devoid of balance or historical perspective.

The work of Ed Ayers and Philip Schwarz, some good work at the Virginia Historical Society, and the recent exhibition on slavery at the Library of Virginia, along with a lot of unpublished work on the Burial Ground and Slave Trail in Richmond, are just beginning to unsettle the mythology of our city and state. The tarnishing of the fantasy has been supported by several national publications of note, including the movie version of Twelve Years a Slave and Edward Baptist’s recently published The Half has Never Been Told, a powerful description of the downriver slave trade.

We may, paradoxically, be obsessed with history in Virginia, not because it is wonderful, but to prevent difficult truths from being admitted. Otherwise, the complicated histories of injustice and conflict might rise to the surface, and we could, at last, move on to complete the task of healing our deep wounds.

-- by Rev. Benjamin P. Campbell, author of Richmond’s Unhealed History and Pastoral Director of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical Christian community and retreat center in Richmond, Virginia’s Church Hill.

Join Rev. Ben Campbell at Richmond Public Library’s Ginter Park Branch on Wednesday, July 8, from 6:00 - 7:30 PM as he reads and presents themes from his book, Richmond’s Unhealed History. Book signing will follow.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Need a beach read? Take a dip in these novels set on, in, or near the water

(But keep the books out of the water. It's bad for them!)

The Gracekeepers
Kirsty Logan

Scottish author Kirsty Logan's folklore-inspired dystopian future fantasy about a world mostly submerged in the sea is atmospheric and captivating. Land is scarce and there are two classes of people: landlockers who are the wealthier landowners, and damplings who make their lives at sea, essentially working for the landlockers and suffering their scorn. Callanish is something of an other in this equation--a landlocker who is considered an outsider for reasons we find out as her story develops. She is a gracekeeper, one who performs "restings" (ritual sea burial) and maintains a "graceyard" (think graveyard, only wetter). Callanish's lonely, hungry and damp existence is forever altered one day when a dampling circus ship arrives at her graceyard for an impromptu resting after one of their acrobats drowns.  She becomes fascinated by North, the circus's bear girl, and the feeling is mutual. Told from multiple viewpoints, Callanish's and North's stories unfold and intertwine as Logan creates a surprisingly believable, completely haunting and enchanting future world shaped by a rising sea.

This is an oddball recommendation from me; I hate the circus and I don't typically go in for fantasy. I find the cute nomenclature a bit heavy handed and cringe-worthy to be honest. I mean, are dystopias created by committee? Do the arbiters of the future sit down together and say "OK, we need to place everybody left after [insert whatever humanity crippling event, crisis, plague here] into two categories, preferably with goofy names implying how single-minded and one-dimensional society will be"? In this case I forgave it because this book was just so darn compelling I could hardly put it down to come up for air. Ahem.

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness
Jennifer Tseng

Lifelong islander Mayumi Saito is a librarian and an unhappily married mother. Hers is a small, quiet world interrupted when she becomes fixated on a shy 17 year old male patron at her library, eventually striking up a secret affair with him and also a friendship with his mother. Her obsessions with mother and son drastically alter her carefully ordered life. Mayumi's narrative is a confessional, but she isn't apologizing for anything. Her peculiarities and wry observations on people and life make for a highly engaging read.

A little note on the text: I love Europa Editions and get pretty excited when a new one comes in. There is something about the sturdy matte paperbacks with flaps, uniform title text and pretty cover designs, and I haven't met one I didn't like.

The Shore
Sara Taylor

Sara Taylor's debut novel The Shore starts off with a bang! The first chapter seriously  knocked me out of my seat and I nearly called off sick to finish the book that morning (just kidding, Library!) There is a complicated family tree in the front of the book for reference, which I admit I flipped to a few times to orient myself. The narratives moving around over a 150 year span seem disconnected at first, sharing only geography and the loose associations of multiple generations of two Eastern Shore families. Powerful and affecting, this is an intense multi-generational family saga if there ever was one (my favorite), so I couldn't be happier. This novel was so well-crafted I could hardly believe this was a first. Five stars and two thumbs way up.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

New YA book reviews from Guest blogger Kathryn

Come August, Come Freedom by Gigi Amateau

Come August, Come Freedom is the chilling tale of a young slave boy named Gabriel, who grows up to be the leader of a slave rebellion. Although this book has many dark elements, it's a great educational read. I also enjoyed the setting of the novel, as it is based primarily in Richmond and Henrico. I enjoyed the historic aspects of the book, and also the characters were really great. They were realistic and they really represented just how hard those times were.

The main character, Gabriel, is our hero and all he wants to do is free himself and his wife so that their children will be free. But he comes to find out through wisdom and experience that it is more about just him and his wife; it is about everyone who is held captive. He soon realizes that in order for change to happen, he has to make it happen.

This book is based on a true story and the author does a great job of making the main characters likable. When they suffer it causes the reader to sympathize greatly. This book is for anyone who enjoys reading historical fiction.

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Sisters is a charming tale detailing Raina and her younger siblings on a three week road trip. Based on a true story, this illustrated book tells the true story of sibling rivalry, and how the main character, Raina, deals with growing up. At the beginning of the book Raina wants a younger sibling, but she doesn’t know exactly what she is in store for when she gets just that. When her younger sister turns out to be moody and withdrawn, Raina and her sister butt heads. 

Things get even more complicated when they learn that they will have a younger brother. All three of them take off to Colorado to visit family, and Raina must bond with her younger siblings.This book is very true to real life, and it offers an insightful view on her siblings interact with one another on a day to day basis.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

Aside from its provocative title, this book is interesting and edgy all on its own. This book tells the story of a girl named Piddy Sanchez, who lives in New York City, and must deal with growing up, boys, bullying, and the absence of her father which affects her in more ways than one. It has much more serious elements to it that make it a drama and although this book can best be described as a coming of age novel, a comedy as well. At times this book can make you laugh out loud, and at others it will make you want to cry. It was so real that it can literally make the reader feel as if they were apart of Piddy’s life.

The author certainly didn't sugar-coat any part of this book, and she did a great job of making the reader sympathize with Piddy. Almost everyone can relate to Piddy because almost everyone has been bullied in some way or another, and that’s what makes this book a solid read.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen was a delightful read. It was a bit slow, but this can vary on what the readers preferred pace is. I also understand that books that are first in a series require time for world building, and the bulk of this book is devoted to just that. I recommend it to anyone who likes to read fantasy based young adult novels. This book is a surprisingly new and refreshing take on what series like The Selection have done, such as mixing violence with dystopian class systems. We have seen numerous takes on what class systems would be like in the future. with series such as The Hunger Games and The Selection series. The best way to describe this book is to say that it is a perfect cross between those two series.

Similarities aside, this book does an incredible job of separating itself from other predictable and true to tradition novels. Red Queen has unbelievable twists,betrayal, violence, and even a bit of romance. This book does a great job of presenting social issues such as corruption and rebellion. I applaud the author for straying from traditional young adult fiction and moving towards something that is different. This story has a lot of potential, and anyone who reads and falls in love with this book will be waiting anxiously for the next installment.

Kathryn Barnes is a 15 year old student and she is in 11th grade at Richmond Community High School. Her favorite book is The Selection series by Kiera Cast. She likes to read, write, watch TV and play video games. Her dream job is to become an author and write books.

Don't Forget about Girls of Summer at the Main Library on Wednesday, June 17th at 7:00 pm! Join Meg Medina and Gigi Amateau at the Richmond Public Library as we celebrate five years of great books for strong girls. Special guest authors Sharon Draper and Aisha Saeed. Ice cream, cake, book giveaways and sales, panel discussions - and our big reveal of the books we fell in love with this year.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Richmond Upon James: An Unrivalled Landscape

You may know that our fair city, RVA, is believed to be named by William Byrd II after a view of the James River from Libby Hill reminded him a view of the Thames River from a village west of London called Richmond. The curve of the James as it begins its slope down the peninsula does indeed look like the curve of the Thames, as a quick tour of Google maps will confirm. But a tour of the library, its art books and novels, might yield more interesting glimpses of our city’s namesake than you can find in Google Maps, or even by flying to Richmond upon Thames itself. Here are a few works of art depicting the view that so impressed William Byrd. And if Byrd saw England when standing over the James, perhaps you can see Virginia in these portraits of the Thames.

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted The Thames from Richmond Hill in 1788. Reynolds (1723-1792) did not paint many landscapes, but he had excellent access to the view as he lived on Richmond Hill. He was the first president of the Royal Academy in London and delivered several lectures on art still celebrated today.

J.M.W. Turner, exhibited his England: Richmond Hill, on the Prince Regent’s Birthday in 1819. Turner (1775-1851) was a great admirer of Reynolds, requesting even to be buried beside him. He too lived close to the view and completed many drawings of it. Turner was recently the focus of a feature film, Mr. Turner, in which he stumbles his way through the gorgeous landscapes seen in his paintings.

In 1879, Charles Dickens, Jr., eldest son of the Charles Dickens you’ve heard of, wrote in his Dictionary of the Thames: “Nothing in the neighborhood of London is better known or more delightful than the view from Richmond Hill and Terrace, and when Sir Walter Scott described it as an unrivalled landscape, he was hardly saying too much.” Dickens was referring to a passage in Scott’s novel The Heart of Midlothian, which was published a year before Turner exhibited his painting. In the novel, a young woman named Jeanie Deans walks from Scotland to London to appeal to the Queen on behalf of her wrongly-accused sister. Here, Jeanie steps out of the Duke of Argyll’s coach and admires the view that Turner, Reynolds, and William Byrd II had admired.

“The carriage rolled rapidly onwards through fertile meadows, ornamented with splendid old oaks, and catching occasionally a glance of the majestic mirror of a broad and placid river. After passing through a pleasant village, the equipage stopped on a commanding eminence, where the beauty of English landscape was displayed in its utmost luxuriance. Here the Duke alighted, and desired Jeanie to follow him. They paused for a moment on the brow of a hill, to gaze on the unrivalled landscape which it presented. A huge sea of verdure, with crossing and intersecting promontories of massive and tufted groves, was tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seemed to wander unrestrained and unbounded through the rich pastures. The Thames, here turreted with villas, and there garlanded with forests, moved on slowly and placidly, like the mighty monarch of the scene, to whom all its other beauties were but accessories, and bore on its bosom an hundred barks and skiffs, whose white sails and gaily fluttering pennons gave life to the whole.”

Friday, May 29, 2015

Sibling Revelry!

This week is all about siblings in recent literary fiction. Why? Because I've read a lot of these lately and they've been really good. These books will all make you laugh and cry, just like how it is hanging out with your siblings. I myself was an only child until 17, and now I'm the proud eldest of 8. Sure, it's complicated, but what family isn't? I also come from a long line of large families and often find myself drawn to stories in which sibling relationships feature prominently. So, if you also liked Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, check these out:

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

Ann Packer totally nails the siblings' voices and respective roles in their family dynamic, the multiple perspective narrative well employed to this effect. She introduces us to four distinct, authentic siblings: Robert, Rachel, Ryan, and James.  The siblings each tell the story of the tumultuous return of the youngest, James, one by one, from oldest to youngest. They explore their shared past and individually fraught relationships with their distant mother Penny. If this family isn't your family, you at least knew them growing up. They lived on your block, you rode bikes with them. You remember serious Robert, destined to follow in his father's footsteps, protective and concerned Rachel, sensitive Ryan, and "perpetual motion machine" James. It's uncanny.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Elfrieda and Yolandi are closely knit sisters raised in a conservative Mennonite community in Canada. Elf has achieved fame and success as a concert pianist but suffers from the suicidal tendencies that eventually claimed the life of their father and several other family members. Yoli's life a "mess" by contrast, the darkly comic (yes, comic) novel follows her struggle to keep her sister alive through multiple suicide attempts, and to process her own grief, coming to terms with life without her big sister and hero. I know what you're thinking. "But Natalie, this is a book about suicide. Is it really super funny?" It is, you guys. It is super funny, and super, super sad. The bond between the sisters is unbreakable and their love for each other profound. The looming specter of death is met with a sort of fatalist humor that one with a genetic claim to any condition might feel.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O'Neill

There are shades of Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, one of my all time favorite movies, in this quirky and dark (yes, Quirkyanddark is my middle name--it's a family name) story about co-dependent and dysfunctional brother-sister twins  growing up stunted and making dubious decisions as they stumble boldly and awkwardly into adulthood, their lives becoming tabloid fodder. Offbeat and philosophical, Nicholas and Nouschka Tremblay, are the twin offspring of oft-imprisoned Quebec celebrity, the "French-Canadian Serge Gainsbourg", √Čtienne Tremblay. Nouschka finds herself growing up and faced with the prospect living without her brother as he begins to get into trouble.

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie Macdonald

"Fiction is not the opposite of truth"--Mary-Rose MacKinnon--

This book wasn't so much about the relationship between siblings but I felt I had to include it because the bond between Mary-Rose and her siblings acted as a sort of anchoring mechanism for our narrator, offsetting her paranoia as she grapples with motherhood and the life of an at-home parent bringing up memories and fears of her own childhood trauma. Memory can be an unreliable narrator, but our siblings knew us when and will always remind us of who we really are.

The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma

This book was really the inspiration for a post about sibling relationships. An outstanding debut, The Fishermen follows four young brothers in this "Cain and Abel-esque" tale set in Akure, Nigeria.

Declaring themselves fishermen, brothers Ikenna, Boja, Benjamin, and Obembe skip school to go fishing in a dangerous nearby river but after an encounter with the town's madman they seemingly succumb one by one to his violent prophecy. Gripping and brutal, balanced with humor and warmth, the brothers are pitch perfect and the fracturing family will break your heart.
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Clare Mitchell

Overheard at the library:
"Natalie said it really picks up after the first suicide." --Kerry P--

(It's funny 'cuz it's true.) This book takes a bit to really get rolling but given a chance this darkly comic tale of a suicide pact between sisters is certainly worth your attention. Written as a sort of joint suicide note/memoir/confessional penned by the three childless Alter sisters, this is a  marvelously witty multi-generational family saga about the "Alter curse,"from late 19th century Germany to New York's Upper West Side today, loosely inspired by the life of the German-Jewish scientist who invented Chlorine gas.