On shelves this month: Sisters, slavery and Sherlock Holmes

By Eugene Holley
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 8, 2014

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New Year, new books. January’s got a number of new releases on tap that offer us innovative and challenging ways to see, decode and reinterpret the world around us.

Before Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there were Angelina and Sarah Grimke, two white, pre-Civil War South Carolina sisters who rejected their genteel status and became two of the most tireless abolitionists and suffragists of their era. How they went from being daughters of the gallant slave-holding South to arch-enemies of that peculiar institution is marvelously realized in The Invention of Wings: A Novel (Viking Adult, Jan. 7), a gripping work of historical fiction by The Secret Life of Bees author Sue Monk Kidd. The author unveils a story that bears the strange fruits of an unlikely friendship between an 11-year-old Sarah and her 10-year-old slave “present,” named Handful, who is taught to read by Angelina—then beaten to death for it. Horrified by the brutality of slavery and the societal limits of their gender, the sisters were exiled from their Southern home, then lifted their voices and sang a song of freedom that still rings true today.

The story of the Grimke sisters is often recounted in American colleges’ black studies programs. The birth, rise and hurdles facing that multidisciplinary field of study are the subject of Regina A. Bernard-Carreno’s Say It Loud: Black Studies, Its Students and Racialized Collegiate Culture (Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., Jan. 1), a compelling and comprehensive history of programs that sprang from the flames of the late ‘60s on campuses from San Francisco State and Cornell to Howard and Temple universities. The author outlines the still-contentious issues on what is teachable in black studies, who is qualified to teach black students and the very viability of black studies in an increasingly diverse and multicultural world. While many conservatives question the need for ethnic specialities in education, the author makes a strong case for a black studies program from which every race can learn.

How racial statistics are turned into racial fictions by politicians is a worthy study in itself. Ian Haney Lopez’s Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class (Oxford University Press, Jan. 13) takes its title from the hidden, coded racial messages political operatives send to their constituents—codes which, supposedly, only they can hear. Think Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” exhortations and George Bush’s menacing “Willie Horton” campaign ads right on up to today’s Tea Party and their claim that President Obama “doesn’t love America.” The author traces the origins of these political race games to George Wallace, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the 1960s as a reaction against the gains made by the civil rights movement. Ironically, Haney Lopez shows that the real victims of this type of chicanery are middle-class white people, who—convinced that the racial apparitions conjured by their elite spin masters are real—get scared and duped into voting against their own economic interests.

If you need to detect hidden messages, of course, what better way to hone your detection skills than by studying the world’s most famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes? Thanks to new movie and TV reinterpretations by Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, the London sleuth has been jazzed up for our era. Holmes’ “birthday” was Monday, Jan. 6, and what better way to mark that occasion than by sampling Jay Ganguly’s The Holmes Sutra: 160 Sherlock Holmes Sayings for his 160th Birthday (MX Publishing, Jan. 6), a witty collection of Holmes-associated quotes, sayings, aphorisms and anecdotes. Anyone wishing to bone up on their Holmes cred will find this book more than suitable for their needs. And you can really impress people when you tell them that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character never said, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Both “elementary” and “my dear Watson,” do appear in the beginning of the 1893 short story The Adventure of the Crooked Man, but not in the same sequence. As Holmes would say, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

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