Tag Archives: nonfiction

“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.

Advertisements

“Blue-Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical” by John Royston Coleman

I haven’t read this book, but I know its good. How? I heard the author speak, shortly after the book was published in 1974. And the gist of his story stayed with me so clearly that I spotted his obituary in the New York Times last week (September 9, 2016)! John Coleman died at age 95, after a life of intellectual adventure and social activism.

Coleman was the first non-Quaker president of Haverford College, serving from 1967 to 1977. In the middle of that period, he took a sabbatical and worked as a garbage collector, ditch digger and salad chef. As President of Haverford, he abolished football (I heartily approve), encouraged antiwar protests and campaigned for coeducation, eventually resigning when the College’s Trustees wouldn’t open the doors to women. (They did so shortly thereafter.)

If you want to read Blue-Collar Journal, good luck. My local libraries don’t have it. I’m sure Interlibrary Loan would come through. Amazon has a few copies, but at $156.87 I won’t buy it. I hope a Kindle version will be offered soon.

Interestingly, I found another book entitled Blue Collar Journal available on Amazon. It’s by one Richard Cronborg, a retired heavy equipment operator who seems to have jumped, upon retirement, into blogging, Facebook, poetry and self-publishing. I doubt the two authors ever met. But what wonderful gifts their writings are!

“Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales

I read this book years ago, probably not long after it came out in 2003. I found it as I pursued my (literary) interest in mountains and climbing. (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is one of my top ten favorite books.)

Case histories make up the heart of this book. I guess we all read about disasters and wonder “Would I have been a survivor? Or a statistic?”

Gonzales treats survival as both an art and a science.

I decided to put my fictional hero Mark Watney (of The Martian) up against Gonzales’ list of survivor traits. How does Mark do?

First of all, Mark manages to believe that the “impossible” has happened. He survived a series of mischances that left him alone on Mars. (Denial wasn’t going to help.) He scores very high indeed on thinking and planning, and he was superbly trained. Humor is important, and Mark is an unapologetic wise guy.

What about play? Gonzales emphasizes the importance of having “stuff in your head”, like poetry, stories, mathematical problems or prayers. Mark is short on this, but in his high tech world, he raids his departed companions “entertainment” files, reading murder mysteries, listening to disco and watching re-runs of old TV shows.

What else? Gonzales emphasizes persistence, but doesn’t say that much about creativity. Watney was creative, and came up with the highly improbable intervention that led to the book’s happy ending.

Most important, I think, in Gonzales’ analysis, was that Watney did things even when they didn’t seem likely to work. Like growing potatoes. So I would say that Mark Watney rated about 60% or 70% against Gonzales ‘ list of survival supporting characteristics. But, hey, its fiction…

Who should read Deep Survival?

  • Anyone involved with or curious about emergency management.
  • Anyone who takes risks intentionally – like mountaineering or white water rafting.
  • All parents of teenaged boys – they are biologically programmed to take risks!

Gonzales has published another book entitled Surviving Survival – The Art and Science of Resilience. I plan to read it.

“The Ghost Army of World War II – How One TOP SECRET Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sounds Effects and Other Audacious Fakery” by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles

This book was an interesting antidote to Harry Turtledove’s eccentric fantasy fiction version of World War II. (See my blog entry dated March 24, 2016.) Beyer and Sayles wrote about the real World War II, and about DECEPTION as a tactic. These soldiers were officially known as the US Army 23rd Special Troops.

The trickery fell into various categories. First was camouflage. No surprise. But it was pursued at a very sophisticated level, and led to the assembly of a group of soldiers with exceptional artistic talent. Camouflage was needed both in the US (where it was assumed that Nazi spy planes might fly overhead), and in Europe, where troop movements needed to be disguised. Camouflage became less important as the War in Europe progressed, because Allied air power countered German spy missions.

The remaining measures were intended to confuse the enemy about the location of key military divisions, and to make the Allied forces look much more numerous and formidable than they were.

The techniques used were visual deception, sonic deception and radio deception, plus some “play acting”.

Visual deception meant setting up “dummies” or fake equipment, mostly tanks and guns. Inflatable rubber tanks and arms were used to create the impression of battle ready troops where none were available. (Inflatable people never worked out.) This could not have been believable without the addition of “sonic” deception. Any army on the move is noisy! Carefully prepared, highly realistic recordings were blasted through truck mounted speakers. But the whole performance had to be supported through radio deception. The enemy was always listening. Carefully scripted transmissions would continue long after a fighting division had left an area and been replaced by a deception team. Deceptive Morse code transmissions were also broadcast.

And a final layer of trickery was added. The soldiers of the deception team would change their uniforms and the markings on their vehicles, and sometimes impersonate a specific high officer to convince the enemy of the location of a particular unit. Some “disinformation” was planted.

All of which added up to very dangerous work. The deception teams worked close to the enemy and were not heavily armed. Secrecy was essential. They were supposed to draw fire without getting killed.

Did it work? Information about the “ghost army” was classified for decades after the War, but the overall consensus was that their actions saved many lives, and may have been pivotal in the Battle of the Bulge. Had the enemy known of Patton’s weakness, perhaps he would have been overrun. (This oversimplifies a very complex situation.)

The deception teams included many artists. Although notes and journals were prohibited by security regulations, the artists were never separated from their sketchbooks. These books and their letters home constituted an amazing visual archive of World War II.

This book was preceded by a documentary film and a exhibition catalog. This may explain its slightly awkward style. But it is well worth reading!

 

“American Ghost – A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest” by Hannah Nordhaus

This book didn’t work for me. It should have – I like memoirs and family histories, and I like the American Southwest, having spent the summer of 1987 in Santa Fe. While I was there, I made a special effort to read “southwestern” authors, like Tony Hillerman and Oliver LaFarge.

Two things interfered with Nordhaus’s effectiveness. One is that the story she had to tell just wasn’t all that compelling. The deep, dark secret at which she persistently hinted didn’t exist, or couldn’t be uncovered. The other problem was her decision to consult a variety of supernaturalists (mediums, spiritualists, “readers” etc.) and included these efforts in the book. Too silly for words!

The good aspect of this book is that it documents the experiences of German Jews in the American Southwest. Santa Fe is an old, old city and it’s good to have this part of its past clarified. I would say this book is of interest to historians and sociologists, not the general reader like me.

“Chrysalis – Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis” by Kim Todd

Published by Harcourt, Inc. 2007. 282 pages. Includes both black/white and color plate reproductions of Merian’s artwork.

This book addresses several of my favorite subjects – nature, science, history and artand the role of women in all of the above! Add to this that the writing is clear and lively, and it’s an all around winner.

Maria Sibylla Merian lived from 1647 to 1717. She was born into a family of printers and artists, and had unusual opportunities for education and training in art. She was a type of child still recognizable today, one totally fascinated by insects! (I meet many such children in various settings and at various ages. How I wish they could all be thoroughly “indulged” in their passion!)

If you investigate Merian on line, you will find many more of her pictures than pictures of her. Her artwork is stunning – colorful, detailed, lifelike and comprehensive, often including all the life stages of a moth or butterfly, plus associated plants.

One unusual feature of her life story is that Merian spent six years living in the “cloistered” religious community of a radical Protestant sect called Labadists or pietists. Merian’s half brother joined the group and a community was established near his remote country manor in Friesland (Netherlands). Merian continued her scientific study and artwork during her time with the pietists.

Returning to the secular world, Merian further established herself as an artist and scientist, then (at age 52) left Europe for an extended stay in Surinam, to continue her studies. After two years, malaria forced her to return home.

I don’t know whether Kim Todd considers herself a biographer or a nature writer. This book combines the two seamlessly, and I found it intelligent and entertaining.

“Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy” by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart

Some coincidences are really strange. Consider, for example, the timing of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident – March 28, 1979. That was just twelve days after Jane Fonda’s antinuclear movie The China Syndrome was released. (The expression refers to the fact that, in theory, an out-of-control nuclear core meltdown might progress indefinitely.) That was the public weirdness.

The private weirdness, for me, was that in March of 1979 I was teaching a college course on Environmental Issues! Nuclear power was among the “issues” on the agenda, and news reports superseded my teaching plans for weeks. (Younger readers may not realize how frightening the TMI accident was. Many people had their “escape” routes planned, in case a large region had to be evacuated.) I learned so much about radiation that I think I could have passed a licensing exam for Radiation Safety Officer. The timing was one of the strangest coincidences in my life.

And now… I have been reading Just One More Hand – Life in the Casino Economy by Ellen Mutari and Deborah Figart, and what happens? The casino industry implodes. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. The bold and (somewhat) controversial plan by Stockton University to establish a campus in the former Showboat Casino has been torpedoed by a casino industry mogul. The Press of Atlantic City has all the dirty details. A project that might have been a cornerstone of redevelopment for suffering Atlantic City has been delayed. Time is money, and the plan may be dropped entirely. Stockton University is in shock.

Mutari and Figart released their book Just One More Hand about six weeks ago. It focuses on the workers in the casino industry, featuring details about the lives of several dozen casino employees. The authors interviewed these people in their homes or on neutral territory, and protected their identities through the use of pseudonyms. This is really a book about the nature of work, and the impact of work on quality of life. It is both well documented and highly readable. I hope it reaches a wide audience.

Consider what the “casino industry” represents! An illegal activity considered a serious social problem has (over about 40 years) been

  • legalized
  • organized
  • regulated
  • cultivated
  • nurtured…

and transformed into an “industry”; a branch, in fact, of the “entertainment industry”. Early on, intense efforts were made to ensure that organized crime didn’t follow gambling into AC when the first casino opened in 1978.

I am well of an age to remember when gambling was illegal. A vice. A crime. I still question its morality. Is it okay to get something for nothing? Advocates point out that participation is voluntary. I choose not to gamble.

Mutari and Figart don’t delve into the question of what came along for the ride as Atlantic City rushed down the path to being a one industry, gambling town. I wonder about drugs. About fifteen years ago, I attended meetings of the “Family Life Committee” at my son’s public school. We dealt with issues like sex education, the level of racial tension, domestic violence, and DRUGS. All the fun stuff. One parent casually referred to gambling as Atlantic City’s number two industry. He was convinced more money was changing hands over drugs than through the legal channels of the gambling industry in Atlantic City. Is this true?

I found Mutari and Figart’s chapter on public investment and risk very interesting, especially the information about Revel, the immense casino that now stands dark and empty, next to the former Showboat which Stockton so optimistically tried to repurpose. Every day the news brings an update on Revel. Is there a buyer? What will happen to the tenants? And whoever thought the mega luxury resort was a good idea?? It’s quite clear that the casino industry, shiny and new in 1978, has matured, spread, and, in fact, reached a saturation point. There was no market for Revel. A shocking amount of tax money was sucked into that black hole. Some experts refer to this as a case of “economic predation”. The money is gone. Little benefit accrued to the taxpayers.

The future of Atlantic City is a mystery. You can understand it somewhat better if you read Mutari and Figart’s excellent book, but really, all we can do is wait and see.