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BOOK REVIEWS | winter 2007


Reviewed in this issue:

Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline By Lisa Margonelli
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route
By Saidiya Hartman
Inés of My Soul
By Isabel Allende
Petropolis
By Anya Ulinich


Fossil Fools

Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline
By Lisa Margonelli
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Although the American oil diet props up some of the most patriarchal states in the world and threatens to toast the planet to a crisp, precious few women’s voices have been heard in the growing debate over our energy future. Lisa Margonelli’s Oil on the Brain—besides being a fun, informative read—is thus an especially welcome addition to the literature.

Margonelli notes that the average American consumes around three gallons of oil every day, shapes car-buying decisions on the size of the cupholder and believes that gasoline is toxic. To untangle these and other paradoxes, this funny, fearless reporter spent three arduous years touring the oily world of gas stations, pipelines and distant petroleum fields, from Alaska to Venezuela. While her itinerary was not novel—Paul Salopek at the Chicago Tribune recently covered similar ground—she does it with a panache and derring-do that eclipse previous journalistic attempts.

For not only did Margonelli venture into the petro hot spots of the Americas, she hit Asia and Africa as well. Along the way, she ate pound cake at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, narrowly missed a drive-by shooting in Nigeria, donned a makeshift veil to slip into Iran and test-drove the latest Chinese cars in Shanghai.

Oil on the Brain gives us witty tales about her misadventures as well as loads of gossipy details, from the patterned socks of a Department of Energy staffer to the otterlike hairdos of the oil traders at NYMEX, but the most arresting part of the book finds Margonelli in dirt-poor Chad, where a corrupt president has signed on to a World Bank-funded, Exxon-led pipeline project without even reading the contract. Here, “everyone knows the laws are just there to show the foreigners,” she quotes one NGO activist, and years of pipeline construction have failed to bring even a flicker of electricity to dilapidated government buildings.

Margonelli has a gift for metaphor. The Texan rig worker’s drawl “crumbled, like something that had been dipped in batter and fried too long,” she writes; the Iranian oilman dips his fingers into warm oil “as though he’s touching fresh milk.” Sadly, besides a few stilted paragraphs rehashed from standard oil histories, she doesn’t incorporate the hard facts of politics, geology and economics into her bewitching narrative. Indeed, some of her commentary is contradictory. American gasoline buyers are “coolly rational customers who shop ruthlessly for the cheapest gas,” she comments, but we also fail to use less when prices go up. So do we think too much about price, or not enough? And what does that mean for impoverished Venezuelans and for Chadian villagers subject to petro-funded genocide?

Without tackling these and other hard questions, her vague conclusion— that “if the United States chooses, it could articulate a new American Dream guaranteeing environmental and economic security along with prosperity and personal freedom”—is less than persuasive, and some readers may find themselves reduced to rubberneckers, gazing uncomprehendingly at the spectacle Margonelli describes. All will nevertheless be thoroughly spellbound by these remarkable tales of folly, corruption and conflict along the pipeline.

Sonia Shah is an investigative journalist and author of Crude: The Story of Oil and The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients.


Dungeons and Diaspora

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route
By Saidiya Hartman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

For decades, academic discussions about the Atlantic slave trade centered on the number of Africans taken from the continent in a violent, forced migration to lands in the Americas. In 1969, historian Philip Curtin attempted the first scientific study of the numbers question (The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census), producing a figure of approximately 9.5 million; scholars since have revised the number to 12 million, and still others estimate that as many as 20 million souls were uprooted from their homelands and made to suffer the brutality of the Middle Passage on their way to plantation slavery.

In recent years, however, scholars, authors and others have focused more on the question of memory than on statistics. What memories of the slave trade and its horrors and complexities still linger along the Atlantic shores of the African continent? What memories remain in the minds and hearts of Africa’s diaspora? Alex Haley’s groundbreaking Roots first awakened such interest in 1976, and since then it has been the journeys of other African Americans back to the continent that perhaps drives this renewed attention to roots and routes.

Saidiya Hartman’s book epitomizes these journeys. An associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, Hartman is a distinguished academic whose work includes the scholarly Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997). But Lose Your Mother describes a more personal journey and is written for a wider audience. In it, she attempts to trace one of the several Atlantic slave routes, this one beginning in Ghana, where she visits such infamous locales as Elmina Castle, which was both slave dungeon and export station.

“I chose Ghana because it possessed more dungeons, prisons and slave pens than any other country in West Africa—tight dark cells buried underground, barred cavernous cells, narrow cylindrical cells, dank cells, makeshift cells,” Hartman writes. As she explores these and other places steeped in the history and memory of the African American experience, she expertly interweaves her own personal history. She reveals what she knows and what she wishes she knew— this is the conundrum that many in the African diaspora face when looking back at a nonlinear history for which few, if any, records can be found.

“In my family too, the past was a mystery,” Hartman laments. “No matter how we embellished and dressed things up, the truth couldn’t be avoided: Slaves did not possess lineages. The ‘rope of captivity’ tethered you to an owner rather than a father and made you offspring rather than an heir.”

She lyrically describes the feeling of not belonging anywhere, of being a stranger, of being a person displaced in the past and in the present. The only resolution to this loss of inheritance is a commitment to the ongoing struggle against slavery in all its forms. This is the legacy Hartman gleaned from her own passage along the slave route. Her beautiful and insightful narrative reminds readers of previous calls for freedom in the work of Anna J. Cooper, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois and Richard Wright, among others. Saidiya Hartman stands in good company, and propels their work masterfully into the 21st century.

Anne C. Bailey is the author of African Voices of the Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame (Beacon Press, 2005).


Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

Chile Con Mujeres

Inés of My Soul
By Isabel Allende
HarperCollins

Many readers will remember Isabel Allende’s bestselling The House of Spirits, her 1982 debut novel about a 20th-century family living in the unnamed country that represented her native Chile. In her latest work of historical fiction, Allende reaches back to the 16th century to recount the adventures of the real-life Inés Suarez, one of the few Spanish women who participated in Spain’s conquest of the New World and who is considered by some the founding mother of Chile.

Doña Inés lies ill in her luxurious home in Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura of the Kingdom of Chile, looking back on the 70-some years of her life. Born in Spain in humble circumstances, she was working as a seamstress to support herself and an unreliable husband when he ran off to South America in search of gold. Childless and unwilling to live as a “widow of the Americas,” she followed him to Peru in 1538 only to learn that he was dead. Suarez soon became the mistress of the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia and accompanied him to Chile, the sole Spanish female in an army of 110 soldiers.

Not much has been written about the women who helped establish the former Spanish Empire. Allende, who spent four years researching Suarez’s life and times, shows us a modest Spanish wife who fends off lustful, drunken sailors on the ship to Peru; a conqueror’s companion who nurses injured soldiers and helps with the building of hospitals and churches in newly established towns; a conquistadora who dons breeches and armor to charge into battle; and a passionate 40-year-old woman who, having been rejected by de Valdivia, marries a handsome young officer and helps him govern Santiago, the growing city she had helped to create.

The description of any conquest can make for painful reading. For the Spaniards, who explored the Americas during an especially brutal era and who were largely motivated by greed, subduing the continent’s indigenous people would include massacre, plunder, rape and other atrocities. Though she writes from the Spaniards’ point of view, Allende attempts a balanced description of the violent clashes between the conquistadores and Chile’s fearless Mapuche Indians. As she said in a recent National Public Radio interview about the book, “I had to take both sides. I come from both cultures, so I can understand both, and I feel entitled to speak for both.”

But it’s Suarez who is the heart of this book. In the early chapters, we see her as an ordinary woman taking advantage of extraordinary events to change her economic and social status. Later we understand: She would have been an extraordinary woman in any age.

Zee Edgell is an associate professor of English at Kent State University in Ohio. Her just-released fourth novel is Time and the River (Harcourt/ Heinemann, Caribbean Writers Series).


Petropolis by Anya Ulinich

From Russia With Love

Petropolis
By Anya Ulinich
Viking

With love and humor, debut novelist Anya Ulinich chronicles the growing pains of 14-year-old Sasha Goldberg of Asbestos 2, a suffocating Siberian mining town. Being a chubby, biracial Jewish misfit in a stringent, racist, anti-Semitic Russian world, Sasha’s individuality is foisted on her. Her black Jewish father left for America when she was 6, so Sasha’s sole provider and main influence is her stoic, pretentious mother, who enrolls her in a Moscow boarding school with hopes that she will live up to the standards of the intelligentsia. As Sasha has inherited a talent for drawing from her father, the reader hopes she will soon find her painter’s heart. Instead, she discovers that a tortured 18-year-old artist-wannabe can love her, impregnate her and leave her.

By 16, Sasha is engaged and living in suburban Arizona, having signed up to become a mail-order bride, while her baby, Nadia, remains with Sasha’s mother in Asbestos 2. (Author Ulinich herself emigrated from Russia to Phoenix with her family when she was 17, and though the novel is not autobiographical, many characters and settings are inspired by personal experience.) Sasha’s tenderness comes out in the few letters to her daughter, sprinkled throughout the narrative.

Numb from the pain of being a fatherless child, a teen mother and an immigrant paying her dues with loveless sex, Sasha is at first relieved to be on this strange adventure in Arizona. But soon the big, bad consumerist culture of America threatens to swallow her up, and she again seeks meaning. A Russian English-as-a-second-language classmate goads Sasha to steal back her passport from her selfish, characterless fiancé and escape. Sasha then finds herself in Chicago, kept as a pet refugee project—and maid—by wealthy Jews. With each new trap, Sasha finds a way to escape: Jake, the paraplegic son of the bourgeois family, helps Sasha locate her father in Brooklyn, where she and the narrative follow.

The author’s empathy shines upon the introduction of Heidi, Sasha’s father’s wife. Heidi had known little about her husband Victor’s past, and nothing about the fact that he had a daughter; the first time they meet is when Sasha approaches Heidi and her toddler son on the street. Sasha and Heidi’s connection grows in poignancy as Heidi stands up to this new challenge in her already difficult life with uncommunicative Victor; she becomes the next great catalyst for change in Sasha’s life.

In the end, Ulinich ties a neat bow around Sasha’s serious coming-of-age problems, but bittersweetness lingers. Petropolis bursts with artful details of an immigrant’s peripatetic youth and quest for home—the grappling for the strong woman inside of the lost girl.

Lisa Teasley is the author of the story collection Glow in the Dark and the novels Heat Signature and Dive (Bloomsbury).