Short takes: Book reviews, in brief

“William Wells Brown: An African American Life” by Ezra Greenspan.
“William Wells Brown: An African American Life” by Ezra Greenspan.


William Wells Brown: An African-American Life

Ezra Greenspan, Norton, 624 pages

This new biography of Wells, a 19th century novelist, memoirist, abolitionist and performer, paints a harrowing picture of slavery, as seen through the eyes of a young man who lived through it, escaped it, wrote about it and advocated against it.

Brown was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1814, but after his owners moved to Missouri the young man was jobbed out by his master to other employers (he worked, his master collected the wages). One job involved working for a slave trader on a boat that collected slaves for sale and transported them down the Mississippi River to the markets of New Orleans (the phrase “sold down the river” derives from this practice).

Wells eventually escaped, taught himself to read, aided fugitive slaves, traveled widely and wrote novels and travelogues – indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is Greenspan’s recreation of a young, boisterous 19th century America. One of Wells’ books was “Clotel,” a novel based on the lives of the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. This and other works by Brown have been collected in “William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings” (Library of America).

The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor

Martin Meredith, Public Affairs, 784 pages

Meredith attempts a comprehensive history of Africa, including slavery and the slave trade, a fact of life and a linchpin of the African economy until slavery was mostly abolished worldwide.

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Knopf, 400 pages

A fact-packed book by New York Times writers (and spouses) Kristof and WuDunn, this book documents approaches to doing good with a proven track record. It also provides tips for how to direct your own charitable giving.

Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods With Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife

John Marzluff, Yale University Press, 320 pages

We live daily with the fact that our presence is threatening the planet’s existence, but this solidly researched book by an eminent University of Washington ornithologist shows that birds can thrive in the suburbs. Humans must pitch in, though, with assists like feeders and wildlife-friendly development.

Seattle Times