Thursday, July 30, 2009

Crossing the Continent, 1527-1540

Crossing the Continent, 1527-1540: The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South
by Robert Goodwin

Crossing the Continent takes us on an epic journey from Africa to Europe and America as Dr. Robert Goodwin chronicles the incredible adventures of the African slave Esteban Dorantes (1500-1539), the first pioneer from the Old World to explore the entirety of the American south and the first African-born man to die in North America about whom anything is known. Goodwin's groundbreaking research in Spanish archives has led to a radical new interpretation of American history—one in which an African slave emerges as the nation's first great explorer and adventurer.

Nearly three centuries before Lewis and Clark's epic trek to the Pacific coast, Esteban and three Spanish noblemen survived shipwreck, famine, disease, and Native American hostility to make the first crossing of North America in recorded history. Drawing on contemporary accounts and long-lost records, Goodwin recounts the extraordinary story of Esteban's sixteenth-century odyssey, which began in Florida and wound through what is now Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, as far as the Gulf of California. Born in Africa and captured at a young age by slave traders, Esteban was serving his owner, a Spanish captain, when their disastrous sea voyage to the New World nearly claimed his life. Eventually he emerged as the leader of the few survivors of this expedition, guiding them on an extraordinary eight-year march westward to safety.

On the group's return to the Spanish imperial capital at Mexico City, the viceroy appointed Estebanas the military commander of a religious expedition sent to establish a permanent Spanish route into Arizona and New Mexico. But during this new adventure, as Esteban pushed deeper and deeper into the unknown north, Spaniards far to the south began to hear strange rumors of his death at Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.

Filled with tales of physical endurance, natural calamities, geographical wonders, strange discoveries, and Esteban's almost mystical dealings with Native Americans, Crossing the Continent challenges the traditional telling of our nation's early history, placing an African and his relationship with the Indians he encountered at the heart of a new historical record.

Half Slave and Half Free

Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War
by Bruce Levine

In this vigorously argued narrative tracking the causes of the Civil War, Levine tries to explain what drove so many working people to commit themselves to the cause of freedom--Southern slaves by their efforts to resist bondage and Northern farmers, mechanics, and factory laborers by their support for free soil and free labor principles. By Levine's reckoning, the slavery issue overrode ethnic and economic concerns and made sectional differences almost irreconciliable within the framework of the Union. Levine succeeds in giving fresh views of the social lives of immigrants, slaves, and working people generally, but his preoccupation with the politics of slavery overwhelms his social history and makes disunion seem more predestined than it really was.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bodega Dreams

Bodega Dreams: A Novel
by Ernesto Quinonez

Although most of his friends succumb to the vices of street life in the ghetto, like William Bodega, Chino dreams of a better future. Therefore, Chino goes to college, while Bodega becomes the most successful slumlord in East Harlem. Their paths cross when Nazaro, Bodega's lawyer, needs Chino's help finding Bodega's lost love, the one he built his success to impress. Chino is so mesmerized by Bodega's dream of building a professional Latino class and a real estate empire that his vision gets clouded. Instead of remaining true to himself, he succumbs to Nazaro's schemes, only to end up his pawn. Chino discovers that although Bodega's crooked plan for political, social, and economic changes fails, the purity of his dream lives on. Quinonez captures more than just the loss of innocence in this novel, he captures the true flavor of the Latin world in Spanish Harlem. From ethnic food, colloquialisms and crude street-talk, to "Spanglish," evangelical religion, and salsa music, this story pulses with the rhythm of a Latin people dancing on Anglo soil. Furthermore, Quinonez's gripping story sparkles with metaphors so brilliant and tangible that the reader will be absorbed from beginning to end.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
by Nathaniel Philbrick

From the perilous ocean crossing to the shared bounty of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim settlement of New England has become enshrined as our most sacred national myth. Yet, as bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick reveals in his spellbinding new book, the true story of the Pilgrims is much more than the well-known tale of piety and sacrifice; it is a fifty-five-year epic that is at once tragic, heroic, exhilarating, and profound.

The Mayflower's religious refugees arrived in Plymouth Harbor during a period of crisis for Native Americans as disease spread by European fishermen devastated their populations. Initially the two groups -- the Wampanoags, under the charismatic and calculating chief Massasoit, and the Pilgrims, whose pugnacious military officer Miles Standish was barely five feet tall -- maintained a fragile working relationship. But within decades, New England would erupt into King Philip's War, a savagely bloody conflict that nearly wiped out English colonists and natives alike and forever altered the face of the fledgling colonies and the country that would grow from them.

With towering figures like William Bradford and the distinctly American hero Benjamin Church at the center of his narrative, Philbrick has fashioned a fresh and compelling portrait of the dawn of American history-a history dominated right from the start by issues of race, violence, and religion.

For sixty-five days, the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt walter onto her passengers' devoted heads. There were 102 of them -- 104 if you counted the two dogs: a spaniel and a giant, slobbery mastiff . . . . They were a most unusual group of colonists. Instead of noblemen, craftsmen, and servants -- the types of people who had founded Jamestown in Virginia -- these were, for the most part, families: men, women, and children who were willing to endure almost anything if it meant they could worship as they pleased . . . .

It was a stunningly audacious proposition. With the exception of Jamestown, all other attempts to establish a permanent English settlement on the North American continent had so far failed. And Jamestown, founded in 1607, could hardly be counted a success . . . . Between 1619 and 1622, the Virginia Company would send close to 3,600 settlers to the colony; over that three-year period, 3,000 would die.

In addition to starvation and disease, there was the threat of Indian attack. At the university library in Leiden [the town in Holland where the Puritans had lived] were sensational accounts left by earlier explorers and settlers, telling how the Indians "delight to torment men in the most bloody manner that may be; flaying some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting off the members and joints of others by piecemeal and broiling on the coals." How could parents willingly subject their children to the risk of such a fate?

In the end, all arguments for and against emigrating to America ended with the conviction that God wanted them to go.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Road

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, "each the other's world entire," are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A History of Mexico

A History of Mexico
by Henry Bamford Parkes

The book begins with an examination of Indian Mexico and continues with the Spanish Conquest, New Spain, the War of Independence, the age of Santa Anna, the reform, the reign of Diáz, the revolution, and the period of reconstruction.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia
by George Orwell

In 1936 Orwell went to Spain to report on the Civil War and instead joined the fight against the Fascists. This famous account describes the war and Orwell’s experiences.