Reader’s Notebook, 5/27/17

I fear these are a little subpar compared to many of my summaries. Since finishing these books, I’ve been knocking out some longer pieces that have been stuck in my Instapaper queue for awhile. And I started a book on Monday that I can’t put down; I’m over 250 pages in as of 5:00 Tuesday. I fear that has warped my memory of these two books a bit.

The Not-Quite States of America – Doug Mack.
How do we define what is American, specifically when it comes to land? What is the difference between being a state and being a territory? What are the reasons Alaska and Hawaii became states, but places like the US Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico, among others, have remained official territories of one flavor or another?

Those are the questions Mack tackled as he traveled through the biggest of America’s current territories. How can lands that, at first glance, seem so un-American end up feeling quintessentially American? What are the ethical ramifications of our culture overwhelming the local culture, often with the acceptance of the natives? Can we, in the 21st century, say with a straight face that we aren’t an empire when we hold lands in the Caribbean and Pacific and do not offer its residents full citizenship privileges?

With that paragraph, I’ve set this up to be a pretty deep book. It has plenty of lighter moments. Mack has a lot of fun along the way. He meets really cool and interesting people. One of the best is a DJ in the US Virgin Islands who insists that Mack text his wife in Minnesota, have her tune to his radio station’s web stream, and then dedicates a slow jam to her from Mack. He lays out the history of each territory, how they came to become US properties, and how each territory has grappled with how to balance its indigenous culture with America’s. His style is engaging and fun.

This is a first-class travel book.

Black Water – Louise Doughty
Another book that was highly lauded last year. And one that is a little difficult to write about. It is told in three parts: first during the 1998 Indonesian revolution; second from 1944–1965 in LA, Holland, and Indonesia; and then finally winding 1965 and 1998 together. At the story’s center is John Harper, a half-Dutch, half-Indonesian man struggling to come to terms with his actions in the political turmoil of Jakarta in 1965 and with his own complicated past as he attempts to carve out a new life with a woman.

Parts of the book, especially the opening third, drag terribly. Other parts, particularly the moments of revolution and coup in ’65 and ’98 roar by breathlessly. That balance makes it tough for me to decide how much I really enjoyed it.

At its core, the book is about how accountable we are for our past actions, whether terrible acts can ever be forgiven, and if not, whether it’s possible for people who have done awful things can create new lives free of guilt. That’s some heady stuff. I wish the story had been like 15% better, though.