Tag Archives: American culture

“The Green Mile” by Stephen King.

My son, a Stephen King fan, knows that HORROR is not my genre, whether in books or movies. I’m such a wimp! Don’t scare me! I already suffer from enough anxiety.

Robert told me “The Green Mile” was more like fantasy. But I couldn’t read the whole book, I stopped before I got half way through. King is a compelling writer, and his tale of death row prisoners and executions in the Depression South was more than I could cope with. He created some great characters, especially the death row manager, who carefully eased the path of the miserable, violent men he ultimately executed. He narrates the story from the perspective of his old age.

What makes this “fantasy”? A condemned prisoner arrives who seems to have supernatural powers, a strange, poor, mentally challenged man who may accomplish miracles.

But I couldn’t face reading about another electric chair execution, so I can’t tell you more! Maybe I should check the Internet Movie Database for the plot. “The Green Mile” was made into a highly successful movie starring Tom Hanks.

Robert’s next book recommendation was considerably more cheerful.

“How Few Remain (Southern Victory)” by Harry Turtledove

As indicated in my blog post of March 24, 2016, I wasn’t impressed by Harry Turtledove, the “master” of alternative history (per Wikipedia). I decided to read this book (in which the South won the Civil War) because I overheard a comment that it was relevant to America under Donald Trump. The USA is portrayed as led by a hawkish and very stubborn politician who wages and loses an unwise war (to force the Confederate states back into the union.)

About 25 years after succession, the Confederacy is thriving but faces international criticism (especially from England and France) because of slavery. The United States, feeling a return of confidence after its defeat, invades the Confederacy and interferes (on flimsy grounds) with its purchase of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexico. The CSA establishes military dominance and the USA suffers a second defeat. The CSA announces its intent to end slavery, but most antislavery activists suspect that little will change.

The “few” who remain refers to the generation of military leaders who went to West Point together and then fought each other during the Civil War.

Turtledove takes the liberty of putting real historical figures into his fiction, in this case Samuel Clemens, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is the most interesting. Conveniently not assassinated, he is defeated for another term as President and wanders the country, speaking out on what we now call economic justice, supporting unionization and being accused of socialism.

I was just interested enough to keep reading this book, but Turtledove is not my cup of tea. I still like the idea of “alternative” historical fiction. Maybe another author will be more to my taste. Suggestions, friends?

The Fifty Cent Boy – Newspapers in my life

When I was four years old, I would hear the doorbell and run to see who was there. Often I would dash off and report to my mother or father “It’s the Fifty Cent Boy!” They knew exactly what I meant. We received two newspapers daily, the Hartford Courant in the morning and Hartford Times in the evening. Each was delivered by a teenaged boy, and the fee was fifty cents (each!) per week. That money was collected with meticulous regularity. I believed in the Fifty Cent Boy. He was much more real than Santa Claus.

Newspapers were important in our household. I used to wonder how my parents could stare for so long without turning a page. Must be very interesting! I got hooked by the time I was ten. Predictably, my first obsession was the “funnies”. I read them lying flat on the floor. The ink was cheap and blackened by elbows. I got in trouble if I was wearing a light colored, long sleeved shirt. If bare armed, I was nagged to wash my elbows.

We used to argue over who got which section first. Usually there were three of us arguing over four sections, but no one was really going to preempt my Dad. My sister soon developed an interest in “Dear Abby”, so she would settle for the women’s section. Where WERE the comics? Was it at the back of the sports section? Or the back of the classified ads? Wherever they were, it was consistent. It took me a while to develop an interest in the front page and the editorials, but over time, it happened.

I missed the familiar papers when I went away to Michigan for college. Mom (a faithful correspondent) mailed me the occasional comic strip. When the bomb squad got called to my high school (due to an error in ordering chemicals for the science lab), Mom sent me the news article.

But there was a newspaper at Michigan State University! Called, I think, the Michigan State News and billed as “Michigan’s Largest Morning Daily”. I think the only higher-circulation paper in the state was the Detroit Free Press, locally known as “The Freep”. I was charged two dollars per semester for the Michigan State News. Once at registration, I was approached by a friend who had a full tuition/room and board scholarship. She had come to registration without her wallet. She needed two dollars to pay for the newspaper, or she wouldn’t be able to complete registration. I helped her out.

I liked the Michigan State News, though I don’t remember much detail. Later, I went to graduate school at a university that also published a daily paper. This is an advantage of a large institution!

Next, I fetched up in York, PA. There must have been a newspaper, and I did read it. But did I have it delivered? By the time I got acquainted and felt an interest in local issues, I was gone. Two years is a short time to live in a community.

Then I moved to New Jersey. Two newspapers competed for my attention, the Press of Atlantic City and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Getting both seemed silly and (in those pre-electronic days) generated too much waste paper. At what point did I start worrying about conserving paper? Maybe 1980?

For a time, I assumed I needed the Press, since I worked for local (county) government. Why didn’t a copy automatically turn up at work?? The Inquirer fell by the wayside.

For a few years, we supplemented the Press with the Washington Post Weekly, a compendium that emphasized editorial content. I liked it. But almost every week, the cover showed an enlarged version of the most controversial or amusing editorial cartoon. Have you ever tried to explain editorial cartoons to a bright and curious six year old? Week after week, we confronted symbolic and allusional graphics. Why is that man waving a coat hanger? What’s bad about the elephant? Who knows what misconceptions my hasty explanations may have been planted in my son’s impressionable brain?

Then followed my long and ambivalent relationship with the Press of Atlantic City. Why did they insist on sending me the Cape May edition? If I lived on the other side of the street, I would have gotten the more relevant Atlantic County edition. Eventually, we switched to electronic delivery, but the problem about which edition did not disappear. Our subscription got scrambled, and now I’m limited to a few articles a month. I seem, however, always to have access to obituaries.

Parallel to all of this, two other news sources have been valuable to me – the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times. The electronic version of the Chronicle is available to me at work, fully enabled for prime content. Yea! I try to limit the amount of (work) time I spend with it. High quality writing, links to good blogs (I like the one called Lingua Franca), issues that matter to me (like campus climate and incidents following the election).

Then there’s the New York Times. Always there. Stockton University (my employer) has an educational deal with the Times, so any student can get an on-line subscription, and free print copies are delivered to campus five days each week during the academic semester. The expectation is that some faculty members will use the Times in their classes. I certainly would if I was still teaching. Their coverage of climate change is high quality. I really should give in and send the Times the few dollars they request for an on line subscription. Meanwhile, I enjoy the print copies, though to some extent I had to “relearn” how to read the Times after spending too much time on line with CNN and other “lite” news sites. Times articles are sufficiently complex that you don’t always realize from the headline that you will find the article worthwhile.

So where does all of this leave me? I don’t watch TV news. I check CNN on line daily. I get news from Facebook. The age of newspapers as my “major” news source is over.

What stimulated this flood of reflection? This morning I walked into my local diner, and my husband picked up the Press of Atlantic City. “Look, an artifact!” he exclaimed. A print copy! Print circulation is dwindling away. Farewell to my favorite news medium.

“Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” and “Why We Chose This Way” by Turiya S.A. Raheem

Here I go again, writing about books I didn’t read, on the excuse that I met the author. Turiya Raheem gave a talk on her recently published book “Why We Chose This Way” at the Northfield (New Jersey) Public Library the first weekend in December.

The original announcement of Raheem’s book talk attracted some negative attention in Northfield. A few people objected to a public lecture by an African American Muslim woman writing ABOUT African American Muslim women. The Library declined to change its plan, and the lecture was very well attended – standing room only.

Raheem, who teaches English at Atlantic Cape Community College, first attracted media attention after HBO aired the made-for-TV period crime drama “Boardwalk Empire”, starting in 2009 and running for five seasons. The book “Boardwalk Empire” by Nelson Johnson had been followed by “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City”. Reporters wanted to talk to people who remembered the Northside in its best days, when it was a hub of African American culture, a miniature Harlem, perhaps. After Raheem was interviewed extensively, she realized she had a potential book in her sights, and “Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” emerged.

In her lecture, Raheem said that she found out that she loves the genre of creative non-fiction. (Readers of this blog may remember that I’ve expressed uncertainty how it is defined.) She decided to exercise her skills on her own demographic niche – she is an African American woman who converted to Islam as an adult.

The first requirement for this writing project was that she guarantee complete anonymity to the women she interviewed. She did this by changing names, locations, numbers of children, and other details, and by sometimes combining the stories of more than one woman. Her goal was to “normalize” these women, who may be thought of as different or exotic by those who don’t know them. She interviewed 30 women, all over age 50. Only one had been born into a Muslim family. Clearly these women find their lives richly satisfying.

The conversation at the lecture covered many topics. Muslim women make various decisions about their distinguishing dress, which makes them so much more conspicuous than Muslim men. This is a matter of choice and custom, not religious requirement. Raheem pointed out that only a limited number of practices are universal in Islam – the “pillars” like prayer and pilgrimage, and abstaining from alcohol or pork. All the rest (much of what we see) is cultural and depends on culture of origin.

Certain themes ran through the discussion – social justice, social class and the nature of community. Community and sisterhood seem chief among the reasons these American converts to Islam are content in their chosen identities.

I’m very glad I got to meet Turiya Raheem, and I’m looking forward to reading her books, which are available on Amazon.

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

This is the fourth book by Ann Patchett that I have read, and I felt disappointed. Too “ordinary”. Patchett’s suburbia is a dull place. A man and woman fall in love and divorce their spouses in order to marry. He has four children, she has two. They constitute the “common wealth” of the title. All six children suffer.

I couldn’t help comparing this book with Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels.

Each deals with children. In each case, events at a party are pivotal. Patchett describes a christening party that turns into a dark, ironic version of the Biblical story of loaves and fishes. A marriage is destroyed. Ferrante’s event is a wedding party, at which the groom betrays the bride, then rapes her.

In each tale, a child is lost. In Commonwealth the oldest of the six children dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. His confused siblings watch uncomprehendingly. Every parent’s nightmare. But the loss described in the last of the Neapolitan novels is even worse – a tiny girl disappears, from a bright street on a sunny day. She’s gone. Her death cannot even be confirmed. Foul play is suspected. Ferrante has a knack for dealing with the most harsh blows that life can inflict.

In each story, someone tells or publishes a story that “belongs” to another person, with disturbing repercussions. Elena (Ferrante gives her own name to her heroine) writes about her friend Lila’s factory employment, bringing down retribution and violence. One of the neglected daughters in Commonwealth tells her lover, a prominent author, about the tragic death of her older stepbrother. He appropriates the story but denies its origins. His book is made into a movie, causing terrible pain to the family.

In my earlier blog post about Ferrante, I described My Brilliant Friend as being worthy of the category of “literary fiction”. The rest of her quartet also meets that standard. Commonwealth, in my opinion, doesn’t make it. Too bad, because I would certainly include Patchett’s wonderful Bel Canto in that category, and I plan to continue to read her work.

“Faitheist – How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious” by Chris Stedman

I didn’t like the title of this book. “Faitheist” sounds contrived, and the subtitle describes the book perfectly well. I relented a little on learning that “Faitheist” was first used to Stedman as an insult from an angry atheist who thought Stedman was “soft” on Christianity. Shows how little I know about contemporary atheism. It’s a movement, not a description.

But that’s not the point of the book, which is fundamentally an autobiography, a very lively and interesting first person text.

Stedman is young, born in 1987 in Minnesota, the kind of intense child who took EVERYTHING seriously. He joined a “born again” Christian congregation shortly before he recognized his homosexuality. His pain and distress at the prospect of eternal damnation drove him to consider suicide. His mother and a sympathetic Lutheran pastor dragged him back from the brink. Spiritually, he developed into an independent atheist.

The real purpose Stedman found in life was social activism at the intersection between different religious groups and, later, between the “religious” and non-believers. He reached the important conclusion that “tolerance” between those of different spiritual paths is not enough – genuine respect is needed. It can only develop from deep friendship and careful listening. Stedman now works as Director of the Yale Humanist Community at Yale University.

Oddly, he never mentions Ethical Humanism.

Recently, a friend of mine observed that when President Barrack Obama discusses religious diversity, he generally includes non-believers as well as practitioners of all the world’s religions. Did Obama pick this up from the Unitarian Universalist congregation his family associated with? Stedman, whose family was decidedly secular, passed briefly through a UU group before his conversion to Christianity.

I mentioned a prominent atheist in a blog post dated January 31, 2014. This was Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, whom I found to be unpleasantly condescending towards religion and religious people.

I looked a little into the controversy around Stedman. He has been accused of “shielding” or apologizing for Christianity and failing to acknowledge its problematic behavior.

The best thing about Stedman’s book is his willingness to tell his own story. I think he recognizes the equal importance of listening to others’ voices. The US is in serious need of this type of respectful dialog.

“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson

This is another “I didn’t read the book” report, and, again, it’s based on the fact that I heard the author speak. The University where I am employed regularly celebrates Constitution Day. Now THERE’S a “holiday” I can get behind! A distinguished guest is invited to campus. (These are generally the caliber of speaker that requires payment.) The speaker visits classes, lunches with a select few and offers an address open to the entire community, campus and neighborhood.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Bryan Stevenson. His topic was “Racial Justice and the Constitution”. But he began by talking about himself, his education and how he became involved with advocating on behalf of death row inmates. He described being sent with a message to a condemned man, informing him that he was not going to be executed for at least six months. He kept apologizing – “I’m not a real lawyer, I’m just a student” to a man so desperate that this was GOOD news.

Stevenson’s other anecdotes were of human contact, with prisoners and others including prison guards.

Stevenson held the large audience spellbound. I can’t imagine a better speaker for students to hear. Mass incarceration is one of the crucial issues of our era.

When asked what an individual can do, Stevenson’s main point was that you can’t solve social problems from a distance. You need to get close – visit or correspond with a prisoner, support a prisoner’s family, etc.