Monthly Archives: January 2016

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.

“The Shepard’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

This posthumous book is a total treat. It is subtitled “A Tiffany Aching Adventure”. We first met young Tiffany in “The Wee Free Men”, one of Pratchett’s funniest books. The five Tiffany Aching books are part of the Discworld series. Some people consider Discworld to be right up there with Narnia and Middle Earth.

Tiffany Aching is a witch in training. Her mentors and fellow witches are a typical Pratchett crowd of eccentrics. As usual, Tiffany faces off with the forces of evil (in this case, fairies) to save her rural community. It’s the details that make this book amusing.

If you want to read for fun, grab “The Wee Free Men” (the first Tiffany Aching Adventure) and get to know Tiffany and company. You will also meet the Nac Mac Feegles, a gang of riotous but well intentioned pixies who guard Tiffany, whether she wants them to or not.

Happy reading!

Reading with a cold – Janet Evanovich and JK Rowling

For the past week, I have been too sick (the common cold, but it felt like the plague) for even halfway serious reading. I was so sick I resorted rereading. I pulled Harry Potter off the shelf, and raced through the second book, Chamber of Secrets. I’m not sure why that one called out to me, but it hit the spot and kept me happily entertained.

I have lots of good memories related to JK Rowling’s blockbuster Harry Potter series. The first book came out in 1997, when my sons were 7 and 13 years old. I honestly don’t remember our reactions to the first book, nor do I remember if I read it out loud to my younger son. The series continued, and we got hooked. By the fourth book, we were ordering our family copy in advance and then arguing over who got to read it first.

I always found the movies relatively peripheral, at least in terms of plot. I’m beyond astonished that the wonderfully well cast ensemble of child actors held together so well through eight movies!

By the time I read the seventh and final book, I was completely engrossed. To me the conclusion was not only vivid and compelling, but also highly visual. I finished the book late at night, turned out the light and watched the action in my imagination…

The seven hard cover volumes of Harry Potter will always have space on my shelf.

I won’t say quite the same for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, which now number 22. I only own a few. The rest came from the library or books on tape. But I have a soft spot for Evanovich, who also wrote some holiday novels and the “between the numbers” books. (I’ve reviewed at least four Evanovich offerings in this blog.) I root for Evanovich because she’s a Jersey girl and writes about the poor, benighted city of Trenton. She’s so damn funny, and the characters she has created feel like friends – I want to keep in touch with them. In a critical mood, I can tell you what’s wrong with the Stephanie Plum novels (formulaic, possibly racist, etc.) but I can’t resist them.

Tricky Twenty-two was extra fun for me because the main plot (there are always several) is set at a local university and peopled with academic eccentrics. A lot crazier than MY crowd of academic eccentrics… Loads of fun.

I hope I don’t get another cold before the next Stephanie Plum novel comes out in November of 2016 (according to Amazon).

I wonder if these two writers have ever met?! Probably not. They are both inventive, and might have lots of fun swapping plot ideas. May they both write on and on!

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Where shall I start? Wilbur and Orville Wright made their famous “first flight” on December 17, 1903. That designation is somewhat arbitrary. It was preceded by many unpowered flights, by the Wrights and others. Gliders had preoccupied many inventors. But on the day in question, Wilbur traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds, in a “flying machine” powered by a gasoline engine.

I have visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where this event took place. It’s on the Outer Banks, where the wind always blows. The National Park Service maintains the Wright Brothers National Memorial. You can walk the 852 feet traversed by Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903 and study displays explaining how the feat was accomplished.

At the National Memorial, the emphasis is on SCIENCE. Inspiration certainly played a part, but the Wrights were meticulously scientific. Discovering that accepted tables describing “lift” were incorrect, they built a wind tunnel and collected their own data. They studied everything they could get from earlier inventors, and they made endless observations of birds in flight. An important insight was that, not only must they build a suitable “machine”, but they themselves must LEARN TO FLY.

It’s a wonder they didn’t get killed. As soon as they created a plane that could carry two people, they agreed never to fly together, so that if there was a serious crash, one would remain to carry on their work.

Initially, the world took little notice of the Wright’s achievement. The first journalistic interest was from the editor of a newsletter about beekeeping.

As interesting as the two famous Wright brothers were (they had two not-famous older brothers), McCullough includes other family members who were interesting on their own.

Bishop Milton Wright was a Baptist minister and often traveled away from his family. He campaigned against Freemasonry, on the grounds that the secrecy involved was unacceptable for a responsible Christian. He observed the Sabbath as a day of rest, a practice continued by his sons even when they were in (more secular) Europe. Most importantly, he loved books and learning and trusted his children to educate themselves, sometimes allowing them to skip school when they were engrossed in reading.

The only Wright sibling to graduate from college was Katharine, the youngest and only daughter, who attended Oberlin and had a career as a high school teacher. Katharine was an early liberated woman! The whole family was well informed and sophisticated beyond what might have been expected in “middle America” at that time.

The cultural consequences of powered flight have been staggering. McCullough doesn’t attempt to explore them. What comes to mind for me is the military use of the airplane. See my review (October 9, 2013) of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why the end of civilization? Because aerial bombardment led to warfare in which there was NO distinction between combatants and civilians.

The Wright brothers were supremely civilized – educated, industrious, responsible and thoughtful. Only Orville survived to experience World War II. The amount of change he saw in his 77 years is hard to comprehend!

David McCullough is a wonderful writer. (See my review of Path Between the Seas – October 18, 2014). I think the next of his books that I want to read will be The Johnstown Flood. I spent Thanksgiving in Johnstown, PA, in 1972.