Tag Archives: journalism

“The Color of Water” and “Kill ‘Em and Leave” by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother was published in 1996. (I don’t remember when I first read it.) As the struggle for racial justice continues, this book deserves to make a comeback. If you missed it, read it now! First person writing at its best.

I just came face to face with Mr. McBride in the pages of the New York Times. His picture is self effacing, and I nearly missed him. The occasion of his appearance in the Times is publication (April 5!) of his latest book, Kill ‘Em and Leave, subtitled Searching for James Brown and the American Soul.

According to NYT reviewer John Williams, McBride found writing about musician James Brown, aka the “Godfather of Soul”, excruciatingly difficult. Not only was his life riddled with mysteries and contradiction, but after his death, his heirs clashed over distribution of his estate in a grim and wasteful debacle.

Between these two books, McBride wrote three books that sound like fictionalized history (not to be confused with historical fiction), drawing his inspiration from figures like Harriet Tubman and John Brown. His journalism careers includes writing for major newspapers (like The Boston Globe) and magazines including Rolling Stone. Also a musician, he plays tenor saxophone and works as a composer.

I hope McBride keeps working in all these media. He has a powerful voice and deserves to be heard.

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“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.

“A Conversation with David Sanger About Today’s Global Realities and America’s Next President”, a lecture by David E. Sanger

The college where I work has a partnership with The New York Times. Students (and others) receive The Times free of charge, and it is used in various ways, in various classes. I think this is great! And the paper generously sends us a distinguished guest speaker annually.

David Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. His speech (title given above) was well worth my time. He also discussed the question of what kinds of issues can be addressed during the Presidential campaign. He thinks the campaign is NOT a good forum for analysis of international affairs, which are a major focus of his reporting.

That said, he gave his list of the three global challenges our next President will face. It turns out I have been worrying about the wrong problems! His big three:

  • Terrorism, or “the forces of disorder”
  • Cyber attacks
  • Dealing with a China (as a “rising power”) and the former Soviet Union (still capable of causing trouble)

Sanger had the luck (good or bad) to speak a few days after the Paris terrorist bombings of November 13.

He considers these problems challenging but manageable, pointing out that we survived the shocking instability of the Cold War and other very dangerous situations over the past decades.

Questions were taken in writing, and I handed in the following: How will climate change impact these global issues? He answered that its major impact will be in the arena of terrorism, because populations may be displaced and having masses of (desperate) people on the move is destabilizing. Some “climate refugees” (my term, not his) may be susceptible to recruitment by extremists.

I was/am completely uninformed about cyber attack. This I will continue to ignore. If my computer at work gets crotchety (it has happened three times in the past month), I will call Computer Services and leave it to the experts.

Sanger’s cautious optimism was a balm. I don’t have to build a fallout shelter immediately. Wait, that was the 50s! What is the equivalent in this year of 2015? I don’t have to give up air travel, stop using a computer or panic about “communists”. Whew! I will continue to nurse my personal concerns about climate change and racial justice.

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.

“Windfall – the Booming Business of Global Warming” by McKenzie Funk

This book (another grab from the “new arrivals” shelf) overwhelmed me. I am woefully ignorant about business and finance, and my ignorance increases with scale. Most of what Funk discusses is global in scope.

Funk is a journalist, and it is harder for me to evaluate his work than, for example, that of a scientist like Richard Primack (author of Walden Warming, see this blog, June 23, 2014). I feel like I need to enlist my local cast of experts about this book, and worry that in some subject areas, I don’t know anyone.

If you decide not to read this book, you should at least look at the seven-page epilogue, entitled “MAGICAL THINKING”. Towards the end, Funk states, “Climate change is often framed as a scientific or economic or environmental issue, not often enough as an issue of human justice.” Good point.

Funk divides climate impacts into three categories – melting (problems of the Arctic), drought and sea level rise. Four chapters are devoted to each of these subjects.

The warming of the arctic puts Canada in a position of incredible strategic importance. Canada will “benefit” in many ways (longer growing season, open Northwest Passage, etc) but I put “benefit” into quotes because so many complications can be foreseen. One is sovereignty. Will Canada become the 51st state of the US? What will happen if our perceived interests diverge? Will the US “let” Canada chart an independent course?

And what about Greenland? I was barely aware of it as a country. I thought I was doing well to have some acquaintance with Iceland! Will Greenland become an agricultural state? A major source of strategic minerals? A tourist Mecca? We can safely assume it will emerge from obscurity.

On the subject of drought, I found Funk’s chapter on the Sahara most interesting, because he considers both desertification and human migration. Are the Africans currently trying to get to Europe “climate refugees”? Under what circumstances will the countries of Europe decide to admit “climate refugees”, and how will they be integrated? Will the richer Northern countries help their poorer, more southerly neighbors (like, say, Malta) that often receive the largest number of undocumented refugees? Can workers from Africa fill important needs in the US or northern Europe?

Many questions, few answers…

In his chapters on “the deluge”, aka sea level rise, Funk considers some technological fixes that might allow adaptation to climate change. One is genetic engineering of insects (starting with the mosquito) to inhibit malaria and dengue, and keep the tropics livable. Most surprising (to me) and actually, maybe somewhat feasible is the introduction of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling impact of volcanic eruptions. This is referred to as the “Mount Pinatubo” proposal, because of the cooling which followed Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

I recommend this book because most of us need to think and act “bigger” on climate change.

“How Soccer Explains the World – an unlikely theory of globalization” by Franklin Foer

HAPPY first day of the World Cup 2014, in Brazil!

I didn’t mean to read this book. I bought it in a used bookstore, thinking it would appeal to my husband, but the real truth is that, if he wants a book, he already has it, so How Soccer Explains the World was low on his reading list. I snagged it in desperation when my Kindle died (see previous post). 

I was shocked to find I was reading a serious book. The cover looked warm and fuzzy (Buddhist monks watching a distant soccer match). Fortunately I read the prologue first, which said the chapters were ordered (roughly) from most serious to most optimistic.

The character of the book is also foreshadowed by its subtitle, an (unlikely) theory of globalization. To discuss globalization, it is necessary to analyze nationalism. This book combines journalism and political science to cover these subjects.

The first few chapters of the book, which dealt with soccer hooliganism, were depressing. Or frightening, depending on your mood. Chapter 1, “How soccer explains the Gangster’s Paradise” deals with the former state of Yugoslavia. Chapter 2, “How soccer explains the Pornography of Sects”, addresses the unfinished Reformation, being played out between Protestants and Catholics in England, Scotland and Ireland.

Country by country, Foer dissects sport and sociology around the world. My favorite chapter describes soccer as “Islam’s Hope”. The women of Iran refused to stay home when their national team was winning.

This book is ten years old, and Foer has not published a comprehensive follow up. I really just want someone to tell me if things are getting better or worse… Foer’s Jewish Jocks, published in 2012, sounds interesting.

Now I’m going to watch the second half of Brazil vs. Croatia.

“Detroit – An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff

I went to college at Michigan State, so for four years I lived in East Lansing, one hour’s drive from Detroit. I never saw the city, except for the airport. Once I spent a night in Detroit at a friend’s house, so I could catch an early flight out. 

Charlie LeDuff, a Detroit native, lived and worked as a reporter in several cities, then brought his wife and daughter home to Detroit, to be near relatives. His account of the life of the city is just gruesome. Detroit is depopulated, desperately poor, politically corrupt and dangerous. 

LeDuff tells the stories of many “little” people whose lives are chaotic, wrecked by poverty, drugs and violence. The only officials who earn his respect are the firemen, who fight a grim battle against fires that are usually set intentionally. Their firehouses are caving in around them and their equipment is old and inadequate.

LeDuff builds his narrative around a fireman who dies when a house collapses on him. The crime of arson is upgraded to murder when a life is lost. Ultimately, the man who set the fire is sentenced to 17 years imprisonment, and the person who PAID him ($20) to set the fire is sentenced to 42 years. This outcome proves that, against the odds, justice does (on occasion) prevail in the struggling Detroit court system.

Of course, this book reminded me of Cities are Good for You by Leo Hollis (see August 9 & 26). Hollis loves cities, but recognizes their problems, and he does in fact discuss Detroit, with 8 references in his index. I started browsing, and a light went on in my head. He mentions the company Quicken Loans, a major purveyor of the sub prime mortgages that contributed so much to the housing market collapse and the foreclosure epidemic.

Before the recession, LeDuff’s bother Billy worked for Quicken. He describes his former job as “borderline criminal”. “I sold bullshit mortgages…negative amortization… A lot of people got fucked. I got fucked.” His current job, in a parts factory, pays $8.50 per (no benefits) for work in dirty, dangerous conditions. He says it’s his penance for the harm he did as a Quicken employee.

But Hollis sees Quicken Loans as a potential “savior” for bringing it’s corporate headquarters to downtown Detroit in 2011. I don’t know who is right about Quicken.

A major theme running through American Autopsy is race. LeDuff examines it demographically, politically and from the viewpoint of his own family. Whoever called race “America’s unfinished business” could have been speaking of Detroit. 

LeDuff is a master practitioner of the new(ish) genre of creative non-fiction. He hooked me in a few pages and I read his book in two days. Its attraction is in the details. I felt like I had watched a particularly good documentary film.