The epic voyages of the Polynesians

Plus, eight great legal cases, a daughter on her mother’s hoarding, the system vs. Barack Obama, a novel by one of Africa’s most promising writers and Gypsy Rose Lee

American rose: a nation laid bare: the life and times of gypsy rose lee
Islanders:The pacific of the age of empireISLANDERS: THE PACIFIC
Nicholas Thomas

The names of the great Western explorers of the Pacific Ocean are well known, commemorated in everything from the Cook Islands to the city of Vancouver to the bougainvillea vine. Thomas, a professor of historical anthropology at Cambridge University, opens his account of a transformative century in the Pacific—what he calls the long 19th century from about 1790 to 1914—with a tribute to the equally epic voyages made by the anonymous Polynesian navigators who took humanity to the last empty corners of the globe. One of those  series of voyages—”unlike anything else in world history for range and rapidity,” according to Thomas—crossed thousands of kilometres and populated dozens of islands in only 100 or so years.

Thomas’s aim is not simply to establish that Polynesian society produced navigators every bit as skilled as any the Royal Navy possessed, but to point out that its history had seen short, sharp transformations before. The rapid expansion wave, in fact, almost certainly arose from population pressure and political upheaval, conditions again bubbling under the surface as Europeans arrived. Islanders were not passive recipients of what Westerners brought—although guns, germs and steel had their horrific effects there.

Instead, indigenous peoples strove, often successfully, to use the outsiders for their own ends. By 1815, the pre-eminent Hawaiian chief had Western advisers and the beginning of a full-sized navy; nonetheless, he asked a visiting British captain if “King Georgey” might spare him a warship. Perhaps hundreds of young men joined Western naval, whaling or merchant vessels. Some, losers in political fights, sought weapons and allies, others wanted adventure. By 1800, Polynesians had been to Australia, China, India, New England and the royal courts of Europe, often leaving accounts of their travels. By focusing on individual stories like theirs, Thomas beautifully accomplishes his aim: not an all-encompassing history, but impressionistic insight into the islanders’ voyages, real and conceptual. Brian Bethune

Is eating people wrong?IS EATING PEOPLE WRONG?
Allan C. Hutchinson

A law degree will take three years of your life and a big chunk out of your bank account. This book promises to turn anyone into a font of legal opinion and trivia in a fraction of the time and cost. Osgoode Hall law professor Hutchinson sketches the people, issues and precedents involved in eight of the most important, and intriguing, legal cases from Britain, Australia, Canada and the U.S. These cases, some hundreds of years old, cover everything from shipwreck cannibalism to a snail in a bottle of root beer, and represent the foundation for much of the English-speaking world’s common law tradition.

The grisly title case involves an unfortunate cabin boy named Richard Parker who provided sustenance for two other castaways when the British yacht Mignonette sank in 1884. The resulting trial wrestled with the issue of whether it is ever permissible to kill one person in order to guarantee the survival of others. The two survivors were eventually convicted of murder, but only served six months each. The defence of necessity remains a legal conundrum to this day.

The “great cases” are lively and educational in equal parts. The ownership of contested goods is parsed in a case involving a fox on the run from American hunters in 1800. Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis’ 1940s campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses reveals how the rule of law serves as a check on abuses of political power. And rapist Ernesto Miranda’s coerced confession paves the way for the adoption of Miranda rights in the U.S.

Focusing on these precedent-setting historical vignettes allows Hutchinson to present the law as a fascinating and organic thing, reflecting both the specifics of legal conflict and the broader influence of society at large. While his penchant for obscure terminology and judges’ biographies does slow the book down (What’s an assizes? Who cares who clerked for whom?), the stories themselves are rich enough to turn a reader into an instant legal expert.
Peter Shawn Taylor

Dirty secret: a daughter comes clean about her mother's compulsive hoardingDIRTY SECRET:
Jessie Sholl

Jessie Sholl left New York City and went home to Minneapolis when her mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer wasn’t the biggest problem. It was the clutter. “If I could get her to unclutter her house, her cluttered mind would follow: somewhere under all the filth is a reliable mother, a consistent and compassionate mother?.?.?.?I know she’s in there. I just have to find her.” Good luck with that, Jesse. Sholl has been the adult in their relationship from the get-go, and this memoir is a therapeutic purge of every complicated emotion that she has ever felt toward her mother. It’s surprisingly breezy but often heartbreaking. Hoarding, as a topic, is big these days, with reality television tapping into our voyeurism, but this is not a bandwagon book. Sholl has been struggling with her mother’s hoarding for 20 years, secretly, and she can’t take it anymore.

Sholl paints a vivid portrait of her mother. Helen is shockingly self-absorbed and lacking maternal urges. It’s no surprise to learn her marriage ended early and her son remains estranged. Just when readers start to hate her, her daughter gives us a glimpse of Helen’s own traumatic childhood. Sholl tells readers, repeatedly, that hoarding is a mental illness and provides arresting statistics: six million Americans are hoarders; most suffered emotional neglect; many are or were nurses, inexplicably; 85 per cent have “first-degree relatives” they’d describe as pack rats; they often see themselves as artists or inventors.

Finally unravelling from the stress of sorting out her mother, Sholl takes the focus off Helen and tells readers about how she, herself, is falling apart. She gets a bit whiny by the end, but this hoarder’s daughter can be excused some self pity, as she waves a white flag and surrenders.
Joanne Latimer


Kabuki democracy: The system vs. Barack ObamaKABUKI DEMOCRACY: THE SYSTEM VS. BARACK OBAMA
Eric Alterman

There are two strands to this biting little dissection of the sclerotic American governmental structure. The first speaks to the left, both in its disappointment over what its inspiring candidate of 2008 has failed to do, and as a reminder of what he did manage to accomplish, notably in health care law. Alterman’s message for his fellow liberals is that Obama’s achievements have actually been impressive, given that “the system is rigged, and it’s rigged against us.”

The key political factor in this rigging, in Alterman’s partisan view, is that Democrats are by nature committed to governmental solutions to socio-economic problems—that’s why they’re Democrats—while their Republican opponents despise government in all its civilian forms. (“We’re the party of ‘Hell, no!’ ” declared Sarah Palin in April, in a cri de coeur that Alterman considers the distillation of Republican ideology.) Small wonder, he concludes, that the Dems can’t find anyone to craft bipartisan compromises with. Democracy American-style is more like theatre, Alterman says, a kabuki show in which liberal presidential contenders promise changes they are powerless to effect.

Conservatives will laugh this off, but a closer examination of Alterman’s second strand might bring them closer to tears. The American system may be biased against liberals, but it is certainly rigged in favour of the status quo. Consider the regional equality principle constitutionally enshrined in the Senate, which means that Wyoming’s two senators each represent 272,000 people, while California’s pair each represent 18.5 million. Procedural manoeuvres permit senators representing 11 per cent of the population to block laws favoured by the other 89 per cent. The demands of fundraising cut into governing effort—the average U.S. senator spends one per cent of his time on the Senate floor. Once a law is in place in the U.S., it can be awfully hard to dislodge, particularly if it provides anyone with a financial benefit, as those newly elected Tea Party members will soon discover.
Brian Bethune

The memory of loveTHE MEMORY OF LOVE
Aminatta Forna

When Aminatta Forna was growing up in Sierra Leone, her father—a finance minister turned opposition leader—was arrested for treason, and later hanged (events she explores in her memoir, The Devil that Danced on the Water). In The Memory of Love, her second novel, Forna continues to explore the legacy of betrayal in all its forms: three men are shaped by love and war, but more so by the stories they tell themselves to escape the pain of both.
Elias Cole is an elderly history professor, fading from life in a hospital in Sierra Leone. He is compelled to summon a British psychologist to his bedside to hear the story of Saffia, a woman who, in his youth, he’d loved “without caution”—despite his friendship with her husband. After his friend is arrested on suspicion of publishing an article denouncing the government, Elias is eventually granted his strongest wish and marries Saffia, but cannot escape the burden of his choices, and of a critical moment of inaction.

At the hospital where Elias waits for death, the psychologist, Adrian, meets Kai, an insomniac surgeon who, during his country’s civil war in the ’90s, developed particular skill in “stitching layers of muscle, sewing skin, patching holes” in victims of machete attacks. Their friendship develops despite Kai’s blunt language and stubborn unwillingness to reveal why he avoids the peninsula bridge connecting the two sides of his city. In time, Adrian falls absolutely in love with Mamakay, a woman who (in a slight stretch of storytelling) is powerfully connected to all three men.

The Memory of Love is a restrained but engrossing and impactful story, and, but for the overly neat connection between the three men, it is easy to see why Forna has been called one of Africa’s most promising writers.
Jen Cutts

American rose: a nation laid bare: the life and times of gypsy rose leeAMERICAN ROSE: A NATION LAID BARE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GYPSY ROSE LEE
Karen Abbott

If you can’t figure out what some of today’s celebrities do to make themselves famous, wait until you meet Louise Hovick, better known as Gypsy Rose Lee. Author Karen Abbott, who dealt with a famous Chicago brothel in her book Sex In the Second City, takes on the story of a woman who became a superstar even though she didn’t have any talent—and admitted it. She was a stripper who rarely took off much, and adopted a persona of mock-primness that was criticized as “too subtle” for the girlie shows known as burlesque. Yet she became “the biggest name in the business,” a leading light of Depression America—and Abbott tries to figure out what this says about her, or about the United States.

The book is structured as a series of alternating chapters, about two periods in Gypsy’s life. Most odd-numbered chapters deal with Louise’s entry into show business and her tyrannical, fame-obsessed mother (whose alleged murder of a lesbian lover didn’t make it into the Ethel Merman musical Gypsy). Even-numbered chapters show Gypsy in the early ’40s, a strange combination of sex symbol and intellectual, who tries to be taken seriously as a playwright and has her heart broken when she falls in love with future Liz Taylor husband Michael Todd.

Abbott has managed to assemble some new information for the book, including her own unpublished interview with Gypsy’s sister, the late actress June Havoc (who told Abbott Gypsy upstaged her first Broadway success by loudly “sobbing at June’s first entrance”). But most of the stories are not very different from those told in other books. However, Abbott interweaves Gypsy’s world with that of her producers, the Minsky brothers, who brought burlesque to the New York stage until its “extinguishment” by moralistic mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Understanding why burlesque was so popular makes it easier to understand how Gypsy hit it big: if the Minskys made their name by salacious parodies of highbrow fare (“Ben-Hur” became “Bend Her”), then Gypsy was what Abbott calls “a burlesque of burlesque,” a “Dorothy Parker in a G-string” whose act was a parody of her own medium. In an era when self-parody has once again become an art form, Gypsy may be a pioneer.
Jaime J. Weinman

Brian Bethune